Walter Hill, a fine writer-director who knows a thing or 12 about helming testosterone-tinged flicks with an existential bent about them (Hard Times, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Undisputed, many more), once orchestrated a solid little film in this milieu called The Driver. Made in 1978, it starred Ryan O'Neal as a taciturn professional whose job was driving getaway cars. In keeping with the stripped-down style of the movie, Hill elected to only give his characters handles rather than actual names: The Driver, The Detective, The Player, The Exchange Man, and so on.
The new movie Drive may be based on the book by James Sallis (Hossein Amini handled the adaptation), but as filtered through the sensibilities of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, there's more than a little bit of Hill up there on the screen. There's also a little bit -- scratch that; there's a lot -- of Refn's European predecessors as well, with this accomplished picture evoking memories of Godard, Leone and even Kurosawa in its depiction of the silent anti-hero as the ultimate in celluloid cool.
Here, another Ryan -- Ryan Gosling -- plays another tight-lipped Driver, this one likewise employed as a wheelman for crooks. But that's merely the least reputable of his three jobs: When he's not working on the wrong side of the law (as illustrated in a spectacular opening set-piece), he's a movie stunt driver as well as a mechanic in a garage owned by the shady Shannon (Bryan Cranston).
Shannon is his link between all three jobs, which becomes problematic once they get involved with a pair of high-end criminals with notable cruel streaks: Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a former Hollywood producer (doubtless a swimming-with-sharks in-joke, and a funny one), and his crude partner Nino (Ron Perlman, and it's nice to see him back from the valley of Conan the Barbarian). Causing even further complications is Driver's growing affection for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son (Kaden Leos) in her care and a husband (Oscar Isaac) on the way home from the clink.
Refn, who won the Best Director prize for Drive at this year's Cannes Film Festival, has fashioned a work that's as slick as its protagonist: Its muted Euro-sheen mingles easily with its American atmospherics, and it's all punctuated by bouts of brutal and unsightly gore that never feel like exploitive overkill but instead serve to feed the urgency of the moment (this is never more evident than the scene set in an elevator, when Driver switches from Casanova to killer in mere seconds).
Gosling's Driver, with his Zen demeanor and a toothpick perpetually dangling from his mouth, is the sort of character that could conceivably emerge as a bad-boy icon for a hungry generation if the film hits big; at the very least, it certainly should do well for the fortunes of its talented star. It's hard to tell if Mulligan is miscast or if her role isn't written as well as those of her co-stars, but she's easily the weak link here.
The entire supporting roster is strong, although Albert Brooks deserves his own standing ovation. The nebbish from Broadcast News and Lost in America has been reconfigured as a slow-burning sadist, and it's a sight to chill the spine.
Drive is such a sterling achievement for most of its running time -- perhaps one of the year's best -- that it's alarming when it crashes and burns during its final 15 minutes. After approximately 90 minutes of careful buildup, the end feels maddeningly rushed, with the actions of various characters bordering on the illogical and their fates succumbing to genre expectations. This unfortunate turn of affairs doesn't irreparably damage the overall package, but it does leave its mark, as surely as oil leaking from a rusty pickup puttering down the highway.