If "The Fast and the Furious" franchise borrowed liberally from 1980s action tropes and ditched plot in favor of sheer speed, it would probably resemble the mad hustle of "Drive," Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's thrilling foray into the Hollywood arena. Combing a memorably gritty Ryan Gosling performance with the breakneck tempo of the getaway cars his character handles for hire, Refn churns out a hyperactive love letter to road rage with unapologetic glee. It's a total blast.
The tense pedal-to-the-medal routine begins in the opening minutes and continues, sporadically, all the way through the bloody finale. Gosling's driver character--in vintage Clint Eastwood fashion, he remains unnamed--arrives on cue to pick up a couple of late night Los Angeles robbers and jet them away from police. A few swift turns and engine revs later, he nimbly avoids each cop on his tail and vanishes into a nearby crowd, while the beats of a cheesy synth score bring up the opening credits.
A speed demon for hire whose risky gig eventually lands him in trouble, Gosling's character finally allows the actor to play the sort of tough guy role that fits his slick demeanor. For his day job, the driver moonlights as a stunt double, suggesting that his only life exists behind the wheel. That addiction becomes troubled when Gosling falls for his soft-spoken neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a fragile woman raising her young son while his father is stuck in jail.
Mulligan looks appropriately spellbound by Gosling's presence, but she's basically a prop with the sole function of reacting to his masculine savior. That's understandable. He's a hilarious conceit whose entire mold culls from macho archetypes, a man of few words with the mechanical ability to always keep his eye on the prize. ("What do you do?" Irene asks when they first meet. His instant reply: "I drive.") Whether threatening to hammer a bullet into the brain of a two-bit thug or smashing another guy's skull with his foot, Gosling walks a fine line between extreme heroism and pure insanity.
Rounding out the cast, Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks relish their opportunities to play slimy one-note villains, embodying Tarantino-esque throwbacks to racing movies of yore. As a duo of high powered gangsters intent on stopping Gosling in his tracks, they exude an archetypical nastiness, energetically trading barbs about their capacity for causing bloodshed. Brooks in particular manages to land a few memorable kills on his path toward a showdown with Gosling, but obviously he has nothing on the movie's main man.
Since completing his "Pusher" crime trilogy, Refn has drifted further and further away from traditional narratives and instead become a master of crafting individually powerful scenes. In his mad British criminal portrait "Bronson" and the hyper-gory "Valhalla Rising," Refn traded storytelling for utter intensity. That trend continues with "Drive," where extreme violence and breathless car chases give way to strangely inert exposition, mere filler until the next major set piece. However, that's not to say that "Drive" ever gets boring. With its pulsating soundtrack maintaing a lurid mood consistent with Refn's hip maneuvering, the lack of substance is the substance.
The vague semblance of a plot involves Gosling's character volunteering to help yank Irene's ex-convict husband (Oscar Isaac) out of hot water when the mob forces him to rob a pawnshop to pay back a prison-related debt. Drawn into a web of corruption, the driver finds himself implicated in the debt and squarely in the crosshairs of the main baddies. That's mostly an excuse for another intense car chase and one equally spirited shootout staged within the confines of a hotel room.
As Gosling increasingly takes on the role of lethal avenger, intent on guarding Irene and her child from harm at all costs, "Drive" not only delivers a prolonged adrenaline rush--it has adrenaline wedded to its DNA. Even a slo-mo kiss shared by the two leads in an elevator comes with the dread of what morbid act may come next.
Having raised expectations that high, Refn can't possibly reach a satisfactory ending. A movie so tuned into fast-paced momentum requires a big finish, rather than the relatively tame conclusion. But within the larger context of contemporary big screen spectacles, "Drive" easily cruises to the top of the pack. It's not one of the best action movies ever made, but individual scenes come mighty close to representing what that might look like: Fast and furious, of course, but also in total control.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With Gosling attached and FilmDistrict set to release the film in the U.S., "Drive" has major commercial prospects and should help raise Refn's profile for American audiences.
criticWIRE grade: B+