From a distance, Drive looked vaguely like a remake of Walter Hill’s 1978 cult classic The Driver, in which an emotionally constipated wheelman operates by his own inscrutable code of ethics. But the new film (actually based on a recent novel by James Sallis), with its hot-pink neon credits and driving synth-rock score, instead presents itself as the great lost action movie of the mid-’80s. If you thought you could never possibly feel excited nostalgia for that era, think again.
Directed by Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising), Drive stars Ryan Gosling as, well, the Driver (like Ryan O’Neal’s character in the ’78 film, he has no name), an impossibly terse hunk of pure soulfulness who performs automotive stunts for Hollywood movies by day and drives getaway cars for criminals by night. After a virtuoso opening sequence depicting a perfectly timed escape from the cops, however, there’s remarkably little driving in Drive. At the muffled heart of the film is the Driver’s soft-spoken, tentative romance with a fetching neighbor (Carey Mulligan) in his apartment building; Winding Refn’s camera scans their faces with such searching intensity that the film should arguably be titled Look. Needless to say, there’s also a heist gone wrong, which gets our hero in Dutch with ’80s-style baddies played by Ron Perlman and—in one of the greatest against-type casting coups in recent memory—Albert Brooks, who more or less torches his neurotic persona even while remaining recognizably “himself.”
But if the plot seems disposable, and the relationships a tad hollow, Winding Refn and his superlative cast put it all across with an uncommon directness that seems to somehow transcend cliché, even as Drive cheerfully replicates many of the schlockiest tropes of the generic ’80s action flick. At least half a dozen scenes will burn themselves into your memory for life, including not one but two of the most jarring, heartbreaking juxtapositions of tenderness and violence this side of Takeshi Kitano. At its best, this high-octane concoction is pure genre bliss.