The dangers of "pre-release hype" are not limited to simple spoilers or heightened expectations. Sometimes the early buzz on a film can lead you in the wrong direction entirely. Take the ridiculously cool new movie called Drive. Early press out of various film festivals led one to believe that this was some sort of hyper-kinetic, non-stop action-fest. Please allow me to set things straight: Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is not an action movie. It is a fantastic little character study / crime story that feels more like Michael Mann's Thief, Richard Rush's The Stunt Man, and Walter Hill's The Driver than anything resembling a non-stop chase-fest.
Please note: none of the preceding paragraph is meant as a slight, knock, or criticism of Drive, which is actually one of the more dramatic surprises of the year. It's just not a full-bore action-fest, and I'm worried that some audience members may walk in expecting something louder/loopier than this exceedingly bad-ass character piece.
Ryan Gosling plays a laid-back, steely-eyed stunt driver who does a bit of "criminal" driving on the side. He's a driver for hire, you see, and he'll get you far away from your recent bank heist, and he won't ask any questions. Stylish, scrappy and inscrutable, the "Driver" turns out to be the unwitting force behind a series of criminal machinations that go from convoluted to certifiably insane the longer the film coasts on. The central plot deals with Gosling's character as he (unwisely) decides to help his neighbor's husband rob a pawn shop, only to discover that he's been set up by the very criminals he just started working with. Speaking strictly, in the "plot" department Drive doesn't present much that's astoundingly unique; it's all in the delivery...
The Danish Mr. Refn, he of strong but disparate films like Pusher, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising, brings a whole lot to the table. Based on a novel by James Sallis, and adapted for the screen by Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove), Drive is little more than a frank and fascinating look at a mysterious ass-kicker who doles out revenge to evil men but also makes time to be heroic to some innocent nobodies -- but, man, is it refreshing to look at, listen to, and wander around in for 100 supremely satisfying minutes. Either by intent or by circumstance, Refn brings an old-fashioned and entirely tangible sense of early-'80s crime flick urgency. From the day-glo opening credits to the endlessly entertaining villains, played by the great team of Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, Drive feels like a potentially silly movie that wins its legitimacy through sheer force of confident, mellow attitude.
Without Gosling's frankly excellent performance as an anti-hero you grow to love, Drive would still have a few great action beats, a strong supporting cast (the lovely Carey Mulligan adds some welcome warmth to a consistently icy tale), and the director's remarkably strong story-telling style -- even scenes of basic exposition have a wonderful air of high-pressure intensity to them -- but, really, the man nails this mysterious character with equal doses of legitimate toughness, sincere nobility, and, when all is said and done, a truly volatile temper. Kudos to Gosling and the filmmakers for painting this fascinating character with so many, sometimes conflicting, brush-strokes.
Call it a neo-noir chase thriller with a lot of edge and attitude, or call it a simple criminal character study that boasts numerous distinctive characters and a perpetually crafty screenplay, but make no mistake: Drive is the kind of genre film that evokes some great films from the ass-kicking 1970s. That alone makes it worthy of note. That the movie is just so much damn fun is just the icing on the cake.