Drive has been named by countless critics and bloggers as “the coolest film of the year” and after a recent viewing it’s easy to see why. Nicholas Winding Refn (he of Pusher, Bronson and Valhalla Rising fame) has paid homage to countless movies of yonder, most specifically using the styles so prominent in movies of the eighties/nineties – think of Paul Verhoeven, Michael Mann, and John Hughes sliced and diced with Peter Yates, John Boorman and William Friedkin (and peppered with Tarantino). Even the sketchy pink typeface used for the posters and marketing is reminiscent of eighties classic 9 ½ Weeks, immediately drawing us back to the pulp movies that were churned out at that time.
The film is a classic American crime story, which sees Ryan Gosling as a very pretty and gritty Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for all sorts of nefarious characters. Meanwhile, he falls in love with cute neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) before things take a turn for the worse after her criminal husband is released from jail. Contrary to the expectation that the two men will battle it out for Mulligan’s affections, the Driver instead helps the man pay off a last debt which is owed as protection money from his time in prison. Should he not stump up the cash, his pretty wife and young son will be killed. When the job turns awry and the men are double-crossed, the Driver begins a one-man vigilante mission for revenge upon those who wronged him – and boy do they regret it.
Aside from the obvious tip of the hat to Clint Eastwood – the Driver remains unnamed throughout, chews on a toothpick, and becomes hellbent on vengeance – there is also a great deal of tribute owed to Steve McQueen, most notably from his performance in Peter Yates’ classic, Bullitt. Like McQueen, Gosling’s Driver is the strong silent type, although soft and gentle enough to attract the opposite sex, and is very caring of Irene’s young boy, making his turn to ultra-violence even more thrilling and shocking. Like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen before him, Gosling always looks damn good in what he wears, and the outfit here is brilliant – beige leather boots, slim dark Levi’s, a white quilted jacket with a scorpion emblazoned on the back, and super cool leather driving gloves – so I won’t be surprised when some of this attire starts to hit the mainstream (even if only for film aficionados). The rest of the cast are also uber-cool, with Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as nasty gangsters Bernie and Nino, Bryan Cranston playing the Driver’s job connection and garage boss, Shannon and Christina Hendricks in a bit part as sexy criminal accomplice, Blanche.
Refn has depicted Los Angeles marvellously well, and there are plenty of recognisable sites, especially the abandoned reservoir used for the drag race in Grease and the bike-lorry chase from Terminator 2. The palm tree lined pavements, neon lighting, humidity and sparse tarmac settings make LA such a dominant presence – you can picture the film not working anywhere else. It could almost be from the same catalogue as Michael Mann’s Heat – as though both Refn and Mann both responded to an advert for the city “Los Angeles welcomes crime sagas”, and one went away and made a slow contemplative crime epic, Heat and the other makes a slow contemplative crime pulp, Drive. I’m not saying the two films are on a par, Mann’s opus is hands-down the superior movie, but both have used their setting, soundtrack and lighting to marvellous cinematic effect that they both ooze Los Angeles – just as Bullitt oozes San Franscisco.
Critics have squirmed at the ultra-violence on display and the lack of depth, particularly from the second half of the film, but I like this descent into chaos, and bloody revenge is wrecked upon such bastards and gangsters that it’s pleasurable to see them getting their comeuppance from the white knight in a scorpion jacket. Drive is definitely ‘very slick and very brutal’ (as Peter Bradshaw describes it), and that is exactly why I love it. This pulp thriller has stepped straight of the pages of a James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard novel, and rivals British spy-caper Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as the year’s coolest film. Gosling already has a huge and devout following, but this will sky-rocket him in Hollywood as a stone-cold stud.