Drive: One of 2011 Best Films A-
“It’s only part time,” says Ryan Gosling’s cool hero of “Drive,” describing his work as a Hollywood stunt driver in formulaic action pictures. Well, judging by his compelling performance in the thriller actioner, Gosling may become Hollywood’s new full-time action hero. God knows the genre’s reliable stars of the past two decades (Bruce Willis among them) are getting too old and cranky.
“Drive,” which world-premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest, should also boost the Hollywood career of its edgy Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn, putting him on the A-list for big-budget thrillers and actioners.
The estimable FilmDistrict will release this brisk, enjoyable, unapologetucally trashy movie in late August, after playing at the Los Angeles Film Fest. The movie world-premiered at the Cannes Film fest (in competition).
I have not read the eponymous James Sallis’s book, upon which the scenario is based, but sources tell me that the narrative by Hossein Amini (who was Oscar-nominated for the literary film, “The Wings of the Dove,” starring Helena Bonham Carter) is a very loose adaptation.
Cool, emotionally detached, and technicaly proficient at what he does, Driver is one of the best men in the business. Two businesses, actually. By night he’s the getaway driver for heist operations, navigating the L.A. streets with admirable speed and commendable precision.
Though a loner by nature, he is not operating on his own. Initially, we are led to believe that he benefits from the help of Shannon (Bryan Cranston) his agent for both his daytime and nighttime employment. Shannon is a small-time crook, but like many of his ilk, he has big dreams and big plans, one of which is to fund a stock car for Driver to race on the professional circuit, while he functions as the team’s manager.
The director and writer are not as concerned with providing in-depth characterization for the story’s figures, or with offering convincing psychological motivations for their conduct, as with creating a fast-moving plot, populated by vivid and colorful persona.
That most of the characters are played by eccentric but “serious” actors makes them all the more appealing–and elevate the stature of the pciture, which is really an unabashedly genre item. Take Albert Brooks, who’s cast against type as Bernie Rose, a former movie producer who has climbed up the ranks of crime family hierarchy. After seeing Driver in action at the speedway, Rose his childhood friend Nino (Ron Perlman) as a partner.
Like numerous noir protags, Driver is a lone wolf, perhaps even an alienated man, an almost inevitable result of both his nature and professional necessity. In other words, he is the kind of man who needs an alluring femme to melt his icy exterior and macho bravado so that he can emerge out of solitary existence.
Enter Irene (Carey Mulligan), his neighbor, a single mom raising a boy, Benicio (newcomer Kaden Leos), whom he first meets at the elevator of their high-rise building. At a second random encounter at the grocery store, Driver offers help when Irene is stuck due to a stalled engine. One drive leads to another, and soon, Driver is taking mother and son everywhere. Moreover, while Irene works her waitress shifts, Driver watches over Benicio, and the two begin to bond.
Things change abruptly, when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison earlier than expected for good behavior. Insecure, having een long-absent, Standard is threatened by another man’s presence in his family. Out of respect for Irene’s desire to keep her family intact, he withdraws–temporarily.
However, when Driver finds Standard injured in the garage, with an emotionally traumatized Benicio standing next to him, he is pulled back into Irene’s life. In desperation, Standard turns to Driver for help. Indebted to the mob for the “protection money” he collected in jail, he is charged with robbing a pawnshop in order to pay off the gangsters, who threaten to harm him and his family.
Meanwhile, mastermind Cook (James Biberi) lays out the plan of the robbery: Standard and Cook’s stripper girlfriend (Christina Hendricks) Blanche will enter the pawnshop and secure the cash, while Driver keeps the car running outside. Everyone will get a percentage of the haul, which means Standard will be able to pay his debts.
Needless to say, the job doesn’t go as planned. When Standard is shot dead leaving the pawnshop and a second car tries to re-steal the money they have just stolen, Driver realizes that they have been pawns in a nasty, elaborate intra-mob rivalry.
Driver’s impulse to extract revenge for the double-cross that ended in Standard’s death is tempered by his need to protect the widowed Irene and orphaned Benicio. He attempts to negotiate with the mob, only to discover that they won’t be satisfied until every potential witness has been taken care of. Up against a vicious gangster syndicate, Driver sees no choice but to fight back.
Having made at least half a dozen pictures, Refn is not a new face in the international world. He is known for the popular “Pusher” trilogy, “Bronson,” and “Valhalla Rising.” But in “Drive,” he shows knowledge of Hollywood crime-actioners of yesteryear, classics about heists that go uproariously wrong as well as more stylish film noirs set in L.A. “Drive” is defined by a visual strategy that combines the conventions of trashy B-level Hollywood actioners as well as those of European art films.
The appeal (and charm) of “Drive” resides not in the story perse, which is rather familiar and often clichéd, but in the storytelling and the mode in which the tale unfolds, the elaborately detailed mise-en-scene, the precision of visual style, the high-level technical execution of some thrilling chases and action set-pieces.
And them there’s the brillant acting of Ryan Gosling (who at this phase could do no wrong, topping his own records), Carey Mulligan (Oscar nominee for 2009 “An Education,” and soon, not to be missed in the upcoming drama, ”Shame,” Albert Brooks (aks as director).
A longer review will be published today
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