It might have been tempting to take James Sallis’s novel and give it the Hollywood treatment but it’s credit to Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn that what could’ve turned into a Grand Theft Auto flick for teenage boys, is instead a refreshingly retro masterpiece.
Without wanting to overegg the pudding, Drive feels special from the get-go. It’s not just the 80s synth soundtrack, the pink credits which feel like a throwback to the heady Miami Vice days, the soft-focus slow-mos, or the slick, tight script that could have it headed for cult status; Ryan Gosling as the Drive-r of the title is quite simply superb, and his mesmerising performance earns him an extra star rating here.
A movie stunt driver by day and a get-away driver by night, Gosling gets caught up in a job gone wrong and finds himself on the mob’s hit-list (baddies Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks) when he steps in to help pretty and timid neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son out of a spot of bother.
We know little of where he’s been or where he’s come from – in fact, we don’t even get to find out Driver’s name – and with his brooding, understated portrayal, Gosling possesses an other-worldly air of mystery that brings to mind that other toothpick-chewing great, Eastwood, with parallels of The Man With No Name.
Except this guy doesn’t ride into town on a horse – instead he prefers an old Chevy and wears a silky bomber jacket that wouldn’t look out of place in The Karate Kid. But being the epitome of cool he pulls it off in James Dean-esque fashion, not detracting from his smouldering masculinity in any shape or form.
Driver is a man with nothing to lose and yet even when we witness his cool and unflinching capacity for vengeance, we’re certain that he’s still essentially good and so, a new anti-hero is born.
There’s no doubt the movie is carefully stylised, even choreographed, with a hypnotic quality in some parts – soothing yet jarring in equal measure.
The violence is vicious, earning it its 18 cert and is enough to make even the Goodfellas grimace; it’s measured and precise though, right down to the pared-back script with plot-filling conversations notable for their absence.
And in sharp contrast to the gruesome brutality throughout, it has an air of innocence underlined by the rather guileless relationship that develops between Gosling and Carey’s characters, and their child-like alliance that essentially can go nowhere.
Don’t be fooled by the title: this isn’t a movie about high-speed car chases (although they also feature). It’s a thinking man’s action flick, art-house action if you like, if such a genre exists. And if there doesn’t, well, Drive has set the bar.
Hollywood’s current choice of Gosling as man of the moment is definitely warranted and with this performance, one suspects the best may still be to come.
Runtime: 100 mins
Reviewed by JR Lowry