Heist movies have become increasingly tired and rote, yet with Drive Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn gets plenty of stylized mileage out of a reinvented wheel. Loosely adapted from James Sallis’ novella by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Hossein Amini, it’s an instant cult classic.
Ryan Gosling stars as Driver (like many a movie gunfighter and samurai, his true name is never revealed), a tight-lipped, locked-down young man who works as a mechanic and part-time stunt driver for cheap action flicks by day, and as a getaway driver-for-hire by night. His agent/boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a loser with big dreams but little means, sees him as a meal ticket and linchpin in his latest business scheme.
At the same time, Driver falls into the orbit of Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young single mother living in the apartment next door. The budding romance is abruptly cut short when husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison early. Driver fades from their life out of respect, but is sucked back in when Standard begs his help with robbing a pawn shop in order to pay off a protection racket.
Of course it all goes south; people die, mobsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, the latter of whom gives a fantastic performance that goes against the grain of his usual sad sack characters) demand blood, and Driver is caught in the middle of double- and triple-crosses in true film noir fashion.
Like the ethos found in spaghetti Westerns and most martial arts films, Gosling’s wheelman operates under a strict code of personal conduct, albeit one defined by his deeds, never openly espoused. The character arguably owes much to the getaway driver played by Ryan O’Neal in Walter Hill’s similar 1978 neo-noir The Driver, and is the kind of emotionally cool, calculated role that most actors would give up a body part to play, and Gosling wrings all he can from it.
Reminiscent of late-’70s/early-’80s actioners a la Michael Mann, Walter Hill, and William Friedkin (a nice touch in that many of Driver’s stunt gigs appear to be for similar pictures). Amini wisely takes a cue from Sallis in realizing that the true appeal here isn’t in the story but in the way it’s told, and Winding Refn deftly follows suit with a European sense of pacing punctuated by sudden outbursts of shocking violence.