“Drive” romanticizes a lot of things that shouldn’t be romanticized: The myth of redemptive violence, dangerous and illegal driving, robbery, evading police and, most egregiously, Members Only jackets. But one thing Nicolas Winding Refn’s 80s-themed, stone-cold badass tale gets right, is the sheer power of cinematic style.
The director of other style-over-substance masterpieces such as “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising” makes a neo-noir arthouse action flick that has a lot more in common with “Yojimbo” than it does with “The Fast and the Furious.” In other words, if you’re a gearhead looking for high octane, macho machine porn, look elsewhere. Well, let’s not get carried away. There is enough savage violence to satiate the callow Tarantino fanboy (not that Tarantino’s work is defined by its loyalists), if he’s willing to sit through a more European, or Sofia Coppola-esque if you like, interpretation of the classic badass myth.
Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, a semi-modernized version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a direct outgrowth from the films of Akira Kurosawa. The Driver is quiet, brooding, smart and brutally just. He’s so quiet, in fact, he could probably pass as autistic, though his smoothness with the ladies lessens the effect. During the day, he drives for the movies. During the night, he drives for anyone who’ll hire him — usually criminals looking for a getaway driver. The money is good, but, naturally, he’s in it for the thrill. After killing a few mob foot soldiers in the aftermath of the a job gone bad, The Driver finds himself in a pickle. His cold brutality, superhero abilities and underlying humanity are his only means of survival.
“Drive” is a strange little picture. It’s cheap, but looks fantastic. It’s drenched in 1980s nostalgia, but feels like a 1990s crime thriller. It’s trailer feels like a mechanical 2000s explosion-fest, but the film itself feels like a criticism of that trend. It feels heartless and amoral, but features touching moments of genuine humanity. In all it’s contradictions, derivations and conceits, it manages to find a nugget of originality, which Refn pinches, molds and polishes into a picture of cinematic vitality. Over the last decade, television, with original dramas like “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Breaking Bad,” has slowly been stealing cinema’s thunder. While the big screen seems unable to satisfy anyone other than fanboy teenagers these days, television has been telling the kind of serious, adult stories once only available in films. “Drive” proves that there are still some things you can only find in a darkened theater.