"Drive is cool. Really cool. In fact this will probably be the coolest film you will see this year."

There is no point getting away from it, Drive is cool. Really cool. In fact this will probably be the coolest film you will see this year. It's derivative of countless B- movies and heist-gone-wrong thrillers, but by the end of the slick opening 10 minute getaway sequence you really won't care, not when a film can look and sound this good. Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice) should take note, there's another director out there in the shape of Nicholas Winding Refn, who knows a thing or two how to shoot an LA crime-by-night flick.

Ryan Gosling is the titular driver, remaining unnamed and without any background throughout the film. Like the Man With No Name from Sergio Leone's westerns, he is a loner of few words with no past and seemingly no vices, who drives cars like they were an extension of his own body. He is the best there is. By day he is a Los Angeles stunt driver for movie productions handled by small-time crook and garage manager Shannon (Bryan Cranston), but when night falls he drives getaway vehicles for armed heists.

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The first 10 minutes of the film shows us all we need to know as we see a heist and escape play out - the Driver's skill in evading the police cars and helicopters rests not just on handling a fast Chevy but on his eerie precision. But precision isn't enough, key to Driver's success so far has been detachment. In an early scene we see Driver lay out his modus operandi to a client - for your money you've got him for the run-up to the heist and for a 5 minute window while it goes down. Anything violates that window before or after and he will be gone and you'll never see him again.

This is a life lived by night in random motel rooms and planned on discarded cheap mobile phones, reminiscent of Robert De Niro's character's philosophy in Heat: “Don't get attached to anything you can't drop in five minutes if you feel the heat on the corner”. It is the life of the Driver, and true to the archetype it is about to be turned upside down when a chink emerges in his armour.

Driver can't help falling for his beautiful neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), a vulnerable young mother whose ex-convict husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in deep with the mob. Volunteering to be the wheelman for a pawn shop heist alongside Standard to clear his debts and protect Irene and her son, Driver is soon being hunted by the mob himself when the heist is revealed to be a set-up. With a bagful of bloodstained money in his car trunk and Irene and her son increasingly in danger, Driver is forced into an increasingly brutal fightback that plays out on the highways, garages and night clubs of LA after dark.

Channelling hard boiled noir novels, Sergio Leone, Michael Mann's crime films (even the particularly overlooked Thief), Bullitt and any number of exploitation B- movies right down to its stylized neon purple opening credits, Drive knows what it is, but also knows it is doing it so well that it can accelerate past cliché. DP Newton Thomas Sigel and Refn together craft a vision of LA that is dangerous and intoxicating - a city dazzlingly lit at night by a million arc lights, strip lights, motel neon signs and helicopter spotlights.

Every point of light in the landscape seems to offer danger and adventure, it is as if the entire city were an underwater coral reef lit from the lights of a ship above. The wide helicopter shots of LA early in the film set the tone, they are breathtakingly crisp and make you just want to dive into the city's underworld and see what games are being played outside of the law. Mann's digitally-shot Collateral had much the same impact, but Drive edges past it for atmosphere. This is LA as a landscape of gritty beauty interrupted with intense violence, enticingly hyper-real.

A retro, electronic score throbs away in the background of Drive. A mix of synthesizer tones fight with catchy club anthems, and brings to mind Mann's eclectic synth-heavy soundtrack choices of yesteryear, particularly his collaboration with Tangerine Dream who scored his heist flick Thief decades ago. In fact this whole film feels retro, like it could be taking place in the 70s - mobile phones and modern cars aside. It is also a film that arguably could have been told without dialogue, just through the soundtrack. Maybe there will be an option on the BluRay for that.

Gosling is pitch perfect as the withdrawn, ice-cool loner at the centre of it all. As an actor who if often 'busy' on screen (see Half Nelson) it is refreshing to see him dial it right down to a few gestures and glances, helped massively by iconic costuming (expect that silver jacket with the scorpion logo to sell bucket loads) and some intense set-pieces where he shows himself adept at the physical side of the role. Mulligan perhaps inevitably gets less to do in the woman-in-trouble role, but the supporting cast otherwise stand out, particularly Albert Brooks playing against type as the Hollywood mogul who seems to have decided being a gangster is more amusing. There's a coldness to the performances, but thats in keeping with the icy tone overall.

Go and see Drive. Ignore how derivative it is, your eyes and ears deserve the treat.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2011
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A stuntman who moonlights as a wheelman finds he is the target of a hit.
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Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Writer: Hossein Amini, James Sallis

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks, Tina Huang, Joe Pingue, Cesar Garcia, Tiara Parker, Sarah Adela Tirado, Jeff Wolfe, James Biberi, Christian Cage

Year: 2011

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted


SSFF 2011

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