Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

As the story goes, Drive, a retro-cool action flick directed by Danish visionary Nicolas Winding Refn, was, at one point, hot-wired to be an expensive and intentionally mainstream vehicle for Hugh Jackman. It doesn’t take a Nostradamus brand crystal ball to predict just how bad that movie could have, and most likely would have, been—a Fast & The Furious breaking speed limits on its way to the bank, but doing so while riding on fumes and stinking of rotten exhaust smoke.

So it’s a good thing that Ryan Gosling, to whom the project was eventually handed over, is no Hugh Jackman—he’s far too crafty and imaginative to go the X-Men Origins: Wolverine route. Given free rein to choose the filmmaker he wanted to oversee Drive, Gosling hand-picked Refn, a ballsy director who has only made daring and provocative genre films throughout his 15-year career: most notably the kinetic Pusher trilogy, the in-your-face wicked biopic Bronson, and meditative, gruesome Viking pic Valhalla Rising, all exceptional. A visual storyteller of the most inventive caliber, Refn takes the bare-bones plot and accessible thrills in Drive and molds each scene into an artistic display of left-field thinking; it’s opening in wide release, but Drive is about as art-house as Hollywood productions get. And, more importantly, it’s as invigoratingly alive as any Hollywood film has been in years.

Based on a novel of the same title by crime writer James Sallis, Drive has a narrative that’s a pastiche of old-school noir: Gosling plays the inscrutably named The Driver, a movie stuntman by day and a getaway wheelman for various criminals by night. He’s a man of few words and counterpart of only one friend: his boss/manager, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who introduces him to a wealthy former Hollywood producer, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, playing magnificently against comedic type), in hopes of earning some extra cash as a racecar driver. Rose is also a sporadically violent gangster (wait until you see what he can do with a fork), partnered up with the much more physically imposing and sinister Nino (Ron Perlman).

Driver’s interactions with Nino take a hard left turn thanks to Irene (Carey Mulligan), Driver’s button-cute neighbor; as she and Driver become close friends and budding lovebirds, her baby’s daddy, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes home from the clink and gets caught up in a heist meant to pay off inmates who protected him during his jail stint. Looking to shield Irene and her young son from the threats of violence that follow Standard home, Driver volunteers to assist him in what’s supposed to be a routine jack-move, which, naturally, gets botched, leaves one robber dead, and puts Driver in a particularly fucked-up situation.

Drive is as invigoratingly alive as any Hollywood film has been in years.

And that’s the gist of Drive’s script, a streamlined piece of work that’s not afraid to revel in grindhouse-styled violence once the final act begins. In the film’s later section, when the violence explodes and blood drips, Refn is back in his Bronson comfort zone, finding unique ways to stage familiar carnage. He’s a filmmaker confident enough to leave the truly hard-to-stomach imagery off screen—well, for the most part, since the sight of a guy’s head getting kicked into a puddle of lumpy flesh isn’t one that casual ticket-buyers will find all too pleasant.

That’s the beauty of what Refn has done here: Drive is a glossy action movie that subverts all we know about such polished and bankable major studio releases. When Driver stalks an enemy in order to shell out payback, it’s not a Jason Statham moment of non-subtlety and raucous fighting—he does so wearing a creepy mask amidst a pitch-black night’s sky, with lighthouse flashes blinking and an eerie avant-garde soundtrack playing, to lend the moment a haunting quality that’d befit a silent horror film. When it comes time to assault the audience with Drive’s nastiest bit, that bashed-in skull mentioned earlier, Refn challenges himself to nail the film’s romantic Driver/Irene climax mere seconds before he executes a visual that should impact even the most insatiable of gore-hounds—the result is a brilliant juxtaposition of tenderness and psychotic release. It’s not something you’ll soon forget.

Owning his role, Gosling is all muted presence here; Driver’s a reactionary character, maintaining an even-keeled state unless he’s pushed, and Gosling finds a comfortable space between quietly charming and Travis Bickle-like sociopath, in which he’s able to shift from one extreme to the other without the slightest bit of awkwardness. Like Gosling’s work as Drive’s leading man, Refn directs the film with a similar back-and-forth control. Drive often reaches vicious levels of nihilism, but it’s fascinatingly majestic throughout; for that, Refn deserves applause for scoring Drive with a spellbinding “neon-pop” (as the director has called it himself) soundtrack, presenting a modern-day romance turned slaughterhouse as a dreamy '80s love story. Though it should be said that, as Irene, the endearing yet inconspicuous Mulligan doesn’t reach Molly Ringwald status.

But she doesn’t have to, either. Under Refn’s sure-handed management, Drive feels like the Tinseltown coronation of the industry’s most exciting on-the-verge talent. He’s by no means a newcomer, but Refn, not wasting a single shot throughout Gosling’s official star-making breakout gig, has never worked on a larger stage than this—that Refn’s inimitably daring and visually propulsive sensibilities, seen in bulk within his previous, off-the-radar films, remained intact for his first wide American release is some kind of miracle. And Drive, as a result, is supreme entertainment.

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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