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Drive: A New and Improved Action Movie

By Pam Glazier · September 20, 2011

Drive is a refreshing breeze that pushes off some of the more acrid assaults of the action genre (you know the ones I’m talking about–::cough:: Takers ::cough::). Although it has wonderfully adrenalized and thrilling action sequences, Drive has a subdued pace. It seems to revel in the ways of the old guard of past action films (think Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin), while also remaining fresh stylistically. I would actually go so far as to call this a glitzy neo-western. This film has the pizzazz of fast cars and dangerous Hollywood crime, but it also asks important questions about family, choices, and what makes a man.

Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. It’s clear in the first five minutes of the film that he is excellent behind the wheel, and a master mechanic of driving precision. Irene (Carey Muligan) is a neighbor who catches his interest. She’s a single mom waiting for her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), to get out of prison. Driver grows close to Irene and her son, but then Standard comes back from prison, and he is excited to turn over a new leaf and be the man that his wife and son deserve. Driver is a stand-up guy and is content to let Standard ride off into the happily ever after sunset with his family; however, some of Standard’s old connections have different ideas. After brutally beating him, they tell him that his wife and son are next if he won’t do a job for them. Driver offers to help and, as is in the nature of these kinds of situations, the heist goes horribly wrong and things get messy, culminating with a contract being put out on Driver’s life.

Sure there’s a great premise and a solid life and death lock in, forcing Driver to propel the story forward as he tries to stay alive. But Drive is more than just one simple protagonist/objective story. The construction of the film’s narrative actually tackles four interweaving plots. First, we have the love story between Driver and Irene, which works well enough despite the fact that Gosling (sadly) doesn’t even take his shirt off once. Then there is the new friendship between Driver and Standard—but this relationship goes directly into the teeth of the love story, and so these two elements operate on a sort of yin/yang see-saw basis, keeping us on our toes. Next there is the business venture between Driver, his boss, and Bernie the mobster (Albert Brooks), and finally the deflating family dynamic between Driver and his boss (which is sort of reversed echoed in Driver’s interactions with Irene’s son). That’s a lot of story to pack into a 100-minute movie, yet the most impressive thing (at least to this viewer) is that it all comes together so seamlessly. Kudos to director Nicolas Winding Refn for bringing Hossein Amini’s wonderful script alive (based on James Sallis’ book). Great material breeds great performances, and Gosling has proven time and time again he can bring his “A” game, with or without his shirt on.

The success of Drive goes beyond the finely tuned story structure and perfectly designed plot points within multiple stories. Sometimes it’s the little details that make a film memorable and unique. And in Drive, we see LA not as a crowded haze of population density, but as a wide-open space in which Driver can roam—and there are a few points in the film where the city even feels like rural country. Another interesting detail is the fact that the mobsters are Jewish, and they run their operation out of an Italian pizzeria. (Go figure.) And yet other details are included to create a sense of constancy in Driver, details such as his meticulous attention to time, his singular wardrobe choice, his signature toothpick, and his unwavering baseline of what he considers to be morally right. And, while all this is going on, the film still manages to feel smooth and unrushed, utilizing intense chase sequences to juxtapose the meticulous and controlled nature of Driver. We are tense with him while he wonders if the cop across the street has spotted him, our hearts are racing while we chant “go, go, go!” as he tries to evade the dangerous thugs in hot pursuit. Watching Driver drive is no doubt an intimate ordeal in an external world of high stakes crime and V8 engines. Huzzah!

Go and see Drive, if not for the great performances, stellar writing, and grade-A direction, then go see Drive because it manages to stretch the action genre, captures both minimalism and complexity at the same time, and it provides intense and intimate action. Oh, and staring at Ryan Gosling doesn’t hurt either, even with his shirt on.