Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a sphinx about a sphinx, a cipher about a cipher, a satisfying action picture which also frequently flirts with pure silliness, especially near the end, which I found somewhat less than totally satisfying--yes, even for an ultra-violent, terse, arty grunter.
Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine, Crazy, Stupid, Love.) plays the main character, a jack-of-all-manly-and-dangerous-trades, who alternates working as a mechanic, a Hollywood stunt driver, and an expert getaway driver for local heists, and who aspires to race stock cars with his pal Shannon (Bryan Cranston, "Breaking Bad," Larry Crowne), who is also his boss at the garage and his intermediary for both stunt and criminal jobs, a handy contact for a dangerous loner.
Drive is heavily indebted to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, without question, along with many other films, and a lot of what's strong in it is what's strong in that film and other films with similarities to both: character development without excessive dialogue, wonderfully sharp and bright images still tinged with shadows, stark action violence which is smart and considered (though not always nearly as well in Drive as in most notable predecessors). Unlike Travis Bickle, and more like our mulberry bush hero in Yojimbo or Eastwood as the Man with No Name, Gosling's driver has a lot of useful skills.
Things are humming along pretty nicely for our hero, criminal wrongdoing and all. He's good at committing crimes and stunts while remaining ever in the background, his skill set keeps him going while progress is made toward his stock car racer dreams in the form of a financial backer, the shady but pragmatic-seeming Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, Taxi Driver, Out of Sight), who has a crass and mobster-y business partner, Nino (Ron Perlman), and he meets Irene, a blonde with a slightly mysterious, unresolved past.
Is the driver's mistake to get involved with Shannon, Rose and Nino or Irene (Carey Mulligan, Never Let Me Go, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), and later her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac, Robin Hood, Sucker Punch)? Yes, of course. We know from all movies of this genre that emotional involvement is the downfall of professional criminals, killers and other psychopaths at all times in all places.
The only other Refn film I've seen as I write this is Valhalla Rising, which is The Seventh Seal meets Yojimbo meets Unleashed meets Dead Man meets The New World. I can tell you that Valhalla Rising and Drive share a nameless hero, ultra-violence, minimal dialogue, spectacularly good imagery, camera movement and framing and a penchant for oddity over story at times.
This will drive some people crazy with love, and others crazy with hate. I call it all admirable. This is not to say it always works just right, because it doesn't. It's usually funny when it doesn't, though, which is a plus. From my limited exposure to Refn, I'd like to see more, and there's lots more.
This film is worth seeing to chart the progression of Ryan Gosling's acting career alone, which is definitely going places. (Does he always have to talk like De Niro?) But Drive is fun while the fun lasts. It goes over and around the top by the end, in my opinion, but great acting from the whole cast and strong pacing still make it a ride worth taking. Some will disagree with me by hating it, and some will disagree with me by loving it, and I am happy to stay right in the middle.
Drive itself is a touch above middlin', certainly a step in class up from the worst Jason Statham action movies, and definitely not just an off-the-shelf retread. But if you hated The American with George Clooney, I believe I can solidly advise you to choose another movie to watch than Drive. Me, I liked The American better, but I like Drive okay, too. I would have liked to have felt more like the director was in complete control of the story, but some might call that another of the film's assets.
Internet Movie Database Entry
Roger Ebert Review
Visit Alex Christensen's
Democrat Guide to the 2012 Race for President