By Sohail Jamudeen
Drive takes the clichés of the sullen tough guy, strips them back until there’s almost nothing there and then turns the whole thing into an ultra-violent movie. It’s exhilarating to watch not because of the on-screen action – there’s only two car chases and one of them is more of a game of cat-and-mouse – but because, sharp visuals and great cast aside, it’s constantly on the brink of turning into a shoddy direct-to-DVD thriller. The tension and suspense doesn’t come from the characters or their situations because after the third scene you can predict exactly how it’s all going to play out; it comes from seeing if director Nicolas Winding Refn really can make all these clichés into something new.
So we have a Man With No Name (Ryan Gosling) – let’s just call him Driver – who works as a stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night, says as little as possible, basically wears a superhero costume (a silver jacket with a scorpion on the back he keeps wearing even when it’s splattered with blood) and turns out to be somewhat skilled when it comes to making people die in very bloody ways. We have his spineless garage mechanic friend (Bryan Cranston) and the charming but do doubt deadly mob boss (Albert Brooks) they turn to in an attempt to start a stockcar racing team. We have Driver’s cute next door neighbour (Carey Mulligan), who he falls for but is too much of a gentlemen to make a move on. And when her fresh-out-of-jail-husband asks for his help with a heist, pretty soon we have a heist gone wrong. They’re not exactly the freshest ingredients off the shelf, but in a lot of ways that’s the point.
Refn’s made a career out of films about violent men trapped in their roles. Valhalla Rising was about a dark ages savage fleeing a life of gladiatorial combat for the New World, only to discover death waiting for him there; Bronson was about the titular grandstanding UK prison inmate, a man so obviously institutionalised he turned himself into a caricature of a prison hard man. The Driver is no less trapped here, but he’s trapped by Hollywood’s idea of what a tough guy should be: sullen, lethally violent, operating on his own moral code. It’s no surprise Gosling plays the Driver not so much as a straight-up tough guy but as someone who’s clearly playing a tough guy, acting how he thinks a tough guy acts even as his expression gives him away. Refn’s hedges his bets a little here by putting together an A-Grade cast. Mulligan turns a massively underwritten character into a plausible love interest with a look and a smile, while Cranston injects the right amount of pathos into a character that in other films we’d just be waiting to see die. Even Ron Perlman as a brutal thug manages to hint at actual depths in between spouting obscenities. But it’s Brooks as the likable, caring, warm-handedly lethal mobster who is the real star here, and perhaps the only one on-screen who comes off as “real” rather than just a stock character. No surprise then that his character once worked as a movie producer; he’s the only one who can see beyond the genre flick they’re all stuck in. And if you don’t buy any of that, this still works as a slick crime drama complete with flashy neo-noir visuals, a love of bloody violence (heads will explode), a few smart twists, a decent semi-romance and a retro-80s soundtrack from Cliff Martenez (basically channelling Tangerine Dream) that’s just one more way this reminds you that this is a film about films just as much as it is about some guy wanting to make a new start as a stockcar driver.