Forget the screeching tires. Oh, sure -“Drive” has plenty of ‘em. Exuding Steve McQueen cool, and Paul Newman baby-blues, Ryan Gosling smears four wheels ninety degrees across blacktop. He shifts into reverse, driving backwards with the pursuing chrome nose of his nemesis’ bad-guy mobile closing in. Cue instant viewer testosterone boost.
But after the smell of burning rubber finally subsides, do we really care?
Yeah. “Drive” makes us care. And I’m not sure how filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn pulls this off. It’s a revitalizing blast to the retinas when familiar scenes and scenarios inexplicably become resurrected, zapping and sparking like a downed power line. Refn, the quirky Danish director behind the grimy “Pusher” Trilogy and the hallucinatory “Valhalla Rising,” builds an entirely new vehicle from junkyard rubble, unwilling to leave the garage until every genre cliché has been stripped off its chassis.
“Drive” actually grows OUT of clichés. It’s like one of those rainforest nurse trees, long since fallen but providing the foundation for every manner of fern and fungus. Refn uses his predictable premise – a silent desperado seeking justice from behind the wheel – like a sturdy Christmas tree from which to hang refreshingly odd, handcrafted ornaments. Don’t be fooled – this is a squealing, hairpin turn in the polar opposite direction of “The Fast and the Furious.”
A Man With No Name – equipped with a killer set of leather racing gloves – cruises through nocturnal Los Angeles where high-rises glitter and glisten with Michael Mann slickness. Need a stuntman? Gosling’s the driver to call for an onset rollover or twisted-metal smashup. Desperate for a last-minute getaway driver? The toothpick-gnawing speedster also moonlights as a crook. You own him for five minutes of cop-evading, on-road maneuvering. Once that window closes, “you’re on your own.”
Equally familiar is the needy Damsel in Distress, played here by irresistible pixie Carrie Mulligan, all voluptuous lips, cute-as-a-button dimples, and yearning eyes. Raising a sweet son whose felon-father will soon return home from prison, Mulligan catches the eye of apartment neighbor Gosling, a man of few words but infinite generosity. He’s a hardened idealist, attracted to the purity of this struggling mother-son family. He acts as a surrogate husband and father until Dad comes home.
Falling asleep? Then you’ll completely drift off while pondering the wearily obvious direction in which all of this is headed. Dad owes money to nasty, ruthless mobsters (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman) who will waste his family if the debt remains unpaid. Gosling, the Urban Cowboy descendant of Clint Eastwood, will drive the getaway car if it means Dad can pay up and ensure that Mom and Child will remain unharmed. No stretch of the imagination that all hope of a simple heist is gone in sixty seconds.
But wait a minute. Since when do he-man films have pink, cursive credits accompanied by bubble-gum techno-pop? Since when does comedian Albert Brooks play a villain so unfunny and unashamedly heinous that it will leave a permanent bloodstain on his Sweet Everyman persona? How can it be that the best scene from “Drive” plays out not on the freeway – but from a grimy, apartment-building elevator? Car chase movies aren’t supposed to act this way.
Refn turns an otherwise mundane slo-mo scene of a paternal protector carrying a sleeping child over his shoulder into a stirring emotional powerhouse. Want something more bombastic? How about a hammer attack in a showgirl dressing room, where a halo of jaded stripper faces, bodacious breasts, and make-up mirrors surrounds the threat of unspeakable violence? This is brilliant, brave imagery – living flesh and dying viscera competing for attention.
And what about that elevator scene? A dreamy, run-on image of unrequited romance is abruptly traded in for obscene brutality. It’s about the greatest juxtaposition of heaven and hell I’ve ever seen on film.
Jarring. Jolting. Off-kilter. Refn freaks us out with rule-breaking style. He stalls when he should be speeding, and revs up his engines when there’s no key to start the ignition. And when the director finally floors it, we’re assaulted into giddy surrender as heads explode, hands are hammered, and chests are gutted like fish. And despite Gosling’s laconic quiet and stylized uber-cool, we never for one moment doubt the beneath the golden dragon logo on his satin jacket, this driver is a bad-ass with a heart.
“Drive” is art disguised as multiplex fluff. With reckless, daredevil glee, Refn has put the pedal to the metal. He’s now racing alongside fellow cinematic speed-freaks Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese. Thankfully for us, he’s still years away from the finish line.