Drive’s initial premise is a far from promising one, with the basic outline of a stuntman/getaway driver getting way in over his head sounding about as hackneyed as they come. The characters all appear to have leapt straight from the pages of the Big Hollywood Book of Archetypes (the criminal with a heart of gold, his kindly mentor, the mother he befriends struggling to raise her son while her husband’s in jail, the villains they all get tangled up with). Yet, Drive is proof that a familiar plot and genre clichés can still be incredibly satisfying when done with style and intelligence.
From its opening sequence, its clear Drive has an agenda all of its own. An introductory getaway is light on action but manages to be more tense and exciting than anything Michael Bay has achieved in his entire career. Enter the pulsing synth soundtrack (a mix of songs pitched just on the right side of cheese, accompanied by Cliff Martinez’s atmospheric score), gorgeous cinematography (L.A. hasn’t looked this beautiful/dangerous since Collateral) and neon pink Mistral titles, and I was immediately sold on Nicolas Winding Refn’s heady concoction of neo-noir and retro-chic.
It’s a B-movie through and through, but where other attempts to replicate that flavour up the ante and push the envelope of loud, brash excess, Drive’s strength is in recognising what makes these kind of flicks work on a fundamental level, and then strips everything down to the bare necessities. There’s very little explanation of the driver (Ryan Gosling) – who he is, where he comes from, what makes him tick – but just enough to satisfy the story, and, as a man of few words, anything else is inferred through his body language, a look he gives, or his actions. All the necessary exposition is given when he pitches his terms of hire. Sure, there are twists and turns, but it’s tightly plotted, with not a shot or scene wasted, an action film as an exercise in the essentials, so when the sudden bursts of ultra-violence do strike, it’s all the more potent. In many ways, Drive the anti-Crank (and this is coming from someone who fuppin’ LOVES Crank), and as far from The Fast and the Furious as you can get.
It helps too that Refn has assembled a great cast. Gosling is hypnotically charming, seemingly coasting on bashful smiles and modest cool to win people over. Yet under the smooth exterior and moral code, you sense there’s far more at work, his reserved persona a mere front for a man capable of some pretty extreme behaviour – and yet you still root for him. Carey Mulligan is naturally adorable, and the bond that forms between them is delicately and believably played out. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks provide reliable support, while Ron Perlman and a particularly wonderful Albert Brooks deliver appropriate levels of menace.
It’s easy to level the accusation that Drive is ultimately insubstantial, and perhaps it does spend a little too long establishing and developing characters who really don’t have much character in the first place. But Refn’s skilled direction and the excellent performances keep everything ticking along nicely, giving Drive style and soul, whereas most crime thrillers would be lucky to have one, let alone both, of those qualities. As long as you’re not expecting wall-to-wall explosions and car chases (okay, maybe one or two), you’re in good driving-begloved hands.