Drive (2011)

4 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is “Drive” a blockbuster? I’m not sure. But it is an action film…or is it? Maybe it’s an action film made for those who usually like blockbusters or action films. There are car chases and a deal of tension, but more importantly, it also has a sense of calmness in its pacing about it and it has characters worth watching.

It’s important for a film like this (or sort of like this) to have an intriguing hero, and “Drive” definitely has one. As played by Ryan Gosling, the lead in “Drive” is a guy simply called the “Driver.” He’s a mysterious auto mechanic who mostly drives—he does car stunts for action movies and drives getaway cars for bank robberies. He says very little and is given little background. This guy is a puzzle. We never know his name and we’re never fully aware of his intentions. We just know that he drives and he has no fear of dying. Ryan Gosling may not be a likely choice for an action hero, but this isn’t a likely choice for an action film. (Excuse me; I’m going back and forth as to whether or not “Drive” is really an action film.)

“Drive” opens spectacularly with a prologue involving a getaway. The Driver provides transportation for some criminals and evades a police chase by timing, swiftness, and possible further-planning, This opening sequence lasts about eight minutes and it’s one of the best paced, thrilling scenes I’ve seen in a long time. That alone could make its own short film, but the rest of the movie is still pretty good.

The plot involves the Driver as his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) gets him a job that will allow him to drive a souped-up car in races. But to pay for the car, he has to turn to a couple of mob thugs, Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). Meanwhile, he befriends his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. In about a week, they grow warm, but then Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison. In a nice twist, the husband isn’t a hostile, enraged, or even jealous man. He thanks the Driver for looking after his wife and kid, but he also asks him for a favor since he sees him as a professional driver. He plans a heist and asks the Driver to provide the getaway vehicle, and this is where the movie goes underway.

The heist doesn’t end well and the dilemma with Bernie and Nino is further developed, putting lives at risk, which include Irene and her son as well as the Driver.

So with the Driver as an intriguing hero, there must also be menacing villains. Bernie and Nino are absolutely (and memorably) ruthless, while Shannon is more benevolent as the man who the Driver needs on his side. They’re all well played by Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston, but if I had to pick the standout, it would have to be Brooks. Because we’re used to seeing Brooks play the sympathetic funny guy, it’s surprising to see just how believable and how effective he is as the refined Bernie, constantly going off on the more loutish Nino and secretly planning his next moves.

The whole movie is presented in a real sense of style. The writing is very smart in making the Driver a sympathetic mystery, the villains consistently ruthless, and the abilities to know when to relax and develop character while also setting up the action. The car scenes are outstanding—there seems to be very little CGI and it looks like real stunt driving happening on the screen. It feels so real as it’s happening, and that further builds up the tension. The final act of the movie isn’t as strong as what followed before. This is more standard action film stuff—it’s when the action kicks up an extra notch, the violence becomes more intense (including a gruesome scene in an elevator), and Gosling and Brooks finally meet for a conclusion for either one of them or both of them. But that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in the final outcome.

There’s a real 1980s-vintage feel to the film, from the pink-colored opening titles to the pumping soundtrack (which features a beautiful-sounding song called “A Real Hero,” by the band College). There’s also symbolism to be found, such as when the color of blood is contrasted the beauty of the palm tree outside a nearby window. The director Nicholas Winding Refn crafts this film with complete seriousness—he takes the characters as seriously as the action scenes. That’s what makes it different from most action films (OK, I’ll call it an action film) and why the final act is interesting, despite my little quibbles with it. “Drive” sets up its characters so we can get to know them so that when the action does kick up an extra notch, it’s effective.

Ryan Gosling, with only mannerisms and facial expressions to work with, is just phenomenal. He makes the Driver a compelling individual to watch—we want to know more about him. He creates a hero that is so shrouded in mystery that it’s very compelling. This isn’t the type of role that Gosling isn’t accustomed to—he winds up owning the screen. His relationship with Carey Mulligan’s Irene and her son is sweet. They say very little, as the Driver hardly engages in small talk, but the mood is there. Mulligan is lovely and innocent in the role and deserves to be secure.

“Drive” is a tense, stylish, wonderfully acted, brilliantly crafted thriller (hey—there’s a better way to describe “Drive!”) that opens masterfully, continues smoothly and icily, and ends chaotically, for better or worse. All in all, this is a very good movie with an intriguing hero, menacing villains, an icy tone, and some real badass driving.

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