By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
It takes a while for the carburetor-noir thriller Drive to get revved up. But when its enigmatic hero slams his foot on the gas pedal (and a bad guy's face), this movie barrels into a space that modern action movies have long abandoned.
Drive is reckless careen down memory lane, back to the days of Bullitt and Vanishing Point, when the measure of a man was the amount of horsepower under his car hood. It's a vehicular assault on the senses, with nearly as many shocks caused by collisions as with knives and gunfire.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn delivers a flawed movie that frays nerves, a movie with true grit matching its gore.
Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic hero, billed in the credits as "Driver," so the other names he's called are just pieces of a puzzling personality. Channeling the sullen cool of Steve McQueen, Gosling acts too detached for immediate bonding with audiences. He says little and does less until his life and those of a mother and her son are on the line. Refn's film is moody to a fault in the first half. Then the supercharger kicks in.
By day, Driver works as a Hollywood stunt driver. By night, he moonlights as wheelman for robberies with a strict code of conduct. He won't carry a gun, help load the loot or stick around beyond a five-minute window of time. Driver just drives, and an early heist proves how cagily he does it, a getaway that clicks because he stays under the speed limit. Right away, we get the feeling this movie will be more existential than exhausting.
Driver meets and is immediately attracted to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is finishing a prison stint. Standard is suspicious of the interest, but when forced to commit a pawnshop robbery to pay off a debt, he turns to Driver for his expertise. The robbery goes horribly wrong and Driver is left to protect Irene and her child. He'll break his own rules about using weapons to do it.
Refn lays down a bloody trail lined with skid marks, unconcerned with distractions like character motivation and narrative cohesion. Drive is artier than usual for an action flick, but that's a refreshing change. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel employs every shade of darkness in his palette, when he isn't soaking the screen in cool blues and blood reds. Cliff Martinez's musical score recalls the sinister, synthesized pulse of Miami Vice and To Live and Die in L.A., a solid complement to Refn's 1980s thriller vibe.
Drive contains several sequences that merely idle, so the Transformers crowd may not be impressed. Each character is one-note — although Albert Brooks plays his perfectly as a murderous mobster — and the ending is an even further throwback to 1970s nihilism.
Buckle up for a bumpy ride but one that a road warrior like McQueen would hitch in a heartbeat.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.