Drive is a triumph for the big screen

JAMES CROOT
Last updated 12:58 04/11/2011
Ryan Gosling

ALIVE AND KICKING: Stuntman by day, wheelman by night, Ryan Gosling (right) is used to taking calculated risks.

Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling

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DRIVE (R18)  Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn ****1/2 Reviewed by James Croot.

Stuntman by day, wheelman by night, he's (Ryan Gosling) used to taking calculated risks.

Whatever form of driving, he's in demand and his skill has his garage boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) looking for financial backers to help him turn pro. "Put him behind the wheel and he can do anything," Shannon enthuses to former film producer turned "entrepreneur" Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks).

But rather than impressing his potential investor, the driver is more interested in helping out his Echo Park neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan).

Beset with car and man-trouble - her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is due for release from prison and she's not sure how she feels about that - Irene is happy for the distraction and attention her neighbour offers her and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).

When he finally comes home, there's naturally a tension between Standard and his wife's new acquaintance, but all that's put aside when Standard receives an unfriendly visit with unreasonable demands - he must fulfil one last job or his family will face the consequences.

Eager to prevent that, the driver offers his services, much to Shannon's annoyance. "I know a lot of guys who mess around with married women, but you're the only one I know who robs a place to pay back the husband," he chides his young charge. Worse still, the task is not exactly what it seems.

From the electric pink opening credits to Cliff Martinez's (Traffic) unsettling, understated electronica-heavy score, Drive harks back to the stylish action-thrillers of the early 1980s. Think To Live and Die in LA meets Sudden Impact by way of Death Wish II and The Hunter.

But unlike some of those, along with the style, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Valhalla Rising) delivers substance. Don't be fooled (as some have) by  the TV spots which suggest this might be the next Fast and the Furious.

This ain't no lunk-headed genre pic filled with car chases and lascivious, lingering shots of fast cars and loose women, but rather a dark, brooding, slow-burning, blood-spattered tale that's closer to The Professional, A History of Violence, Collateral or the 25th Hour than The Transporter.

And forget pithy one-liners, Gosling's nameless hero is also a man of few words in a film where dialogue itself is spare but telling, while the, actually rare, acts of violence are bloody, brutal and wince-inducing.

Working from Hossain Amini's (Jude) clever script, which turns James Sallis's fractured, gloomy and poetic 2005 tale into a compelling, "driving" narrative, director Refn delivers a masterclass in mood creation, playing with camera angles, shadows, film speed and sound to keep the audience fully engrossed.

It also helps that he's assembled one of the dream casts of 2011. Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love) is a revelation as the driver whose genial demeanour hides a coldish heart of controlled aggression and don't-argue authority.

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And he's admirably supported by a supporting cast that includes the luminous Mulligan (An Education) and a virtually unrecognisable - both physically and character-wise - Brooks (Broadcast News, who, despite a puffy demeanour that makes him look like a Dicky Tracy villain, has the biggest perception makeover since Sir Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast), as well as some of the stars of the most popular current TV dramas - Cranston (Breaking Bad), Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy) and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men).

For some that last part might be proof that the best talent and tales are currently being told on the small screen in America, however Drive is most assuredly strong evidence that as a storytelling artform, cinema is still very much alive and kicking.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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