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DRIVE Review - Slick & Precise Car Crime Thriller Turns Grindhouse

It's only interesting when it's a Steve McQueen-like, very precisely told, quiet and meticulously directed car crime thriller that refuses the urge to break the realms of plausibility.

(My Drive review from Cannes re-published as the film is released in the UK today)

rating: 3.5

For me, Nicolas Winding Refn's new movie Drive, which premiered in competition last night to a responsive crowd in Cannes, only truly works for the first half or maybe 2/3rd's of it's running time. It's only interesting when it's a Steve McQueen-like, very precisely told, quiet and meticulously directed car crime thriller that refuses the urge to break the realms of plausibility. The rest sadly is a mess - Refn inexcusably transforming a smart and lean thriller into a ramped up Nicolas Cage-style Grindhouse movie that forgets all the good motoring that's built up in the first half for diverting and excessive blood exploitations and cheesy one-liners and cheap cliches and it's painful to see it happen before your eyes. A steady and measured pace always wins the race but Refn attempts something higher than fifth gear to cross the finish line and very quickly crashes and burns. Refn throws his promising classic under the bus - churning out a confused and uninteresting third act that doesn't at all reflect the film that is setup in the opening and could only be appealing to those who enjoy Z-grade actioners - i.e. those who believe Jason Statham's films are the must-see's above all else on the annual film calendar. But as problematic as the third act becomes, boy does that wonderful first work gloriously and that's precisely why you should see Drive when it opens this September. For a while this is filmmaking on a completely different level to the glitzy, sleek, CGI in-debted and utterly unbelievable Fast & Furious franchise and is the kind of smart car thriller I've been screaming at Hollywood to make for too long. Every now and again when one comes along like this it reminds me that there are some filmmakers out there who understand how to make high-end 70's genre movies in the modern era. The car scenes in Drive is the kind of thing Death Proof's Stuntman Mike reminisces in Quentin Tarantino's own homage to this kind of cinema. Indeed the first half of Drive is very similar to another movie I loved last year - Anton Corbijn's The American - which was also all about character suggestion made by movement and a story stripped down to the bare essentials. All the modern day distraction bullshit to appease a certain demographic gone. It's smart and undeniably cool€ a movie in the same realm of Michael Mann (especially Thief and his more recent effort Collateral which also had title credits in neon skylights) and even a little of Steven Soderbergh's determined hero & sleazy villain in The Limey thrown in for good measure (this movie also features a similar showdown on a beach). And without a doubt the biggest influence is Walter Hill's late 70's movie The Driver which similarly had a character cited by the film's title and was about a getaway driver for robberies who becomes the subject of a pursuit from a cop (perhaps the biggest influence on the game Grand Theft Auto?). Just forget the detective part and Drive plays much the same for the majority. Ryan Gosling stars as a stoic but somewhat charming and definitely likeable guy simply named 'Driver' who holds down three jobs; a mechanic for a boss he respects and is more like his only friend (Bryan Cranston), a stunt driver for the movies and also as a freelance driver for criminals in need of a quick getaway. All involve cars - the vehicles and his Scorpion art printed white driver's jacket and toothpick defining him. Presumably his moonlighting job is where his big bucks come from and his main rule to the criminals who hire him is simple - all he does is drive (he doesn't get involved in the robbery itself) and the criminals only enjoy 5 minutes of his service before their time is up. He regularly tells his clients whatever they do in the minute before and after is not his business, his job is to drive. The opening of the movie holds it's best scene and it had me grinning like a cheshire cat at just how perfect it was and where the film might go after the 80's pop infused credits (this oddly fitting music carrying on till the end). In a night time L.A. we see Gosling's driving skills put through the ringer from the get-go when escorting two criminals away from the crime scene as they dodge the cop cars through his evasion abilities, his instinct of how to hide and of knowing human behaviour. His knowledge of the L.A. streets helps as does his ability to tune into the district's cop radio. The scene involves a terrific, loud and astonishingly well directed car chase scene which lives up to the two other ones of note in the last five years - Ben Affleck's The Town last year (which is better than this one) and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. I mean it's not quite the Bullit scene below but it's a nice under-study. Gosling's character is extremely minimalist, kind of like the video game lead of Grand Theft Auto who doesn't have a great deal of backstory but we slowly see some charisma creep in when we see how he interacts with a cute neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Their blossoming romance is halted somewhat by the arrival of Mulligan's husband Standard (yup, that's his name) who gets out of prison (Oscar Isaac - in another good turn) and draws Gosling into an ever darker side of the streets of L.A. than he is used too as a way for Standard to pay off his debts to a mob boss and so their family can live in peace. Gosling brings much of what we've seen from him before in Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl and most recently Blue Valentine - a kind of soft spoken and not frequently (he blurts out about one sentence in the first 15 mins) but straight-talking character who has charisma in spades, though again the movie was written for somebody who would go a little crazier in the third act and Gosling suffers from being unable to keep up with the pace. An important scene when we see his frustration boil over into a threat to a criminal is ineffective because of Gosling's lack of conviction. I promise you, unless you are an ardent supporter of the works Nicolas Cage has made recently, unless you loved Drive Angry or something like James Gunn's recent superhero craziness Super - the second half is just not going to be for you, like it wasn't for me. Don't get me wrong, Drive is very much worth seeing and Refn is a director of supreme talent. He has a knack for composition and I really can't tell you enough how much I enjoyed the first half of the movie, this is filmmaking that holds up with the best of the 70's. Refn previously helmed the Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising and is starting to make a name for himself. Drive is adapted for the screen by Hossein Ameni (The Wings of the Dove, Killshot) from a James Sallis novel which I haven't read so I'm not sure who is totally responsible for the third act tire burst but I imagine with the excessiveness in the blood & gore - it must be Refn. As it's just as much a stylistic change as it is a storytelling one. My favourite performance in the movie belongs to Albert Brooks - who plays a former movie producer who made films that Hollywood deemed to be too 'European' (biggest laugh I've heard in Cannes in two weeks) and is now a Jewish man of power and has people working for him everywhere, including Ron Perlman who plays his number two criminal. Darkly, menacing and just all round awesome... Brooks owns all the scenes he is in. I should also say the Cannes crowd, for many of whom I suspect Drive may even be the last movie they see here this year (This Must Be The Place played today but I know a few journo's have already bailed from the South of France) - absolutely loved the transition from McQueen to Cage revenge Grindhouse cinema and would clap, jeer and show their enthusiasm for the overly bloody and violent aspects. Or even the anticipation of it. All in all this reaction was astonishing considering this was a screening in Cannes. Perhaps after all of the depressing narratives we've seen unfold here this year (pretty much all the horrendous things human begins can do to each other AND also a movie about the destruction of the planet) - perhaps this enthralling action piece is exactly what we needed. Why not have a dude's face kicked in for 20 full-on seconds? Drive is out now! Bring the festival experience home this year on Blu-ray Disc €“ keep up to date with all the latest Blu-ray news at the Blu-ray Disc Reporter.
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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.