In recent times, makers of ‘need for speed’ films have seemed determined to take a giant dump on the legacies of the ‘Steve Mcqueens’ of this world and descended into directionless popcorn fodder for the easy to please masses.. yes the Fast and Furious franchise, i mean you! So thank the heavens for cinema’s powerful new double act Mr Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn, as they’ve crafted together a stylish bloodsoaked classic here as they dare to do a two way balancing act.
A pedal to the metal cinematic experience that packs a punch in a literal sense but lands an emotional blow or two to its credit and also artistically put their own stamp on the genre, whilst delivering the thrills normally associated with such fare.
Gosling has been open to the idea that the character he plays in ‘Drive’ is the closest he will go to a fantasy, comicbook esque world. Only known as pure and simply ‘The Driver’, you can certainly compliment his opinion. With L.A. providing an impressive backdrop, we initally see him as a social outcast donning a scorpion marked jacket, a toothpick being an obvious visual motif to a bygone era (Westerns anyone?) and it is soon clear that he lives by ’the actions speak louder than words’ rulebook.
With his father like figure Shannon (Bryan Cranston) essentially dictating his life, by day he is living the high life in Hollywood, being a dab hand behind the wheel for the movies as a highly regarded stuntman. But by night, he is a driver for hire. Being efficient at providing getaways to criminal but anonymous figures and keeping to a tight schedule is his game.
Just when you think he’s a cold emotionless figure, he forms a substantial bond with his timid neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. As the feelings for each other deepen, they have the unfortunate occurence of her husband Standard (an ex con played by Oscar Isaac) coming back into their lives. With past troubles from a criminal underworld still hanging over him, he hires Gosling for a heist to ‘supposedly’ keep him off the hook for good. The only problem.. there are deeper underlying issues involved thanks to the pairing of Bernie Rose and Nino (Albert Brooks and Hellboy’s Ron Perlman), that make Standard one of MANY targets in line to be taken out.
Refn won Best Director at Cannes for this and you can see why. From the neon tinted and sweeping aerial shots of L.A. to the suspense building and lingering long shots that initally set up the more gruesome segments, the film moves seamlessly along set to a superbly European, grounded in the 80’s soundtrack. It’s like a Michael Mann film, but on crack. Plus his light on dialogue and high on figure expressions approach conveying the plot points is an inspired and effective move.
In addition, a film like this would not be complete without some pulse pounding car chases and Refn certainly delivers them with impeccable style and panache. The supporting cast prove to be great foil for our skilled protagonist, with Perlman and Brooks chewing up the scenery with their menacing turns and Mulligan being wonderfully understated. But this is undoubtedly, the Gosling show. Whether he’s laying a footprint repeatedly into someone’s skull in an elevator, or just having to look like a moody enigma, he proves once again that he is well and truly the real deal. The cynics may complain of a lack of backstory to his character, but this is what lends to the air of mystique to his persona and the story’s effectiveness to emotionally engage.
It may not be for the faint of heart, with its uncompromising sudden and explosive jolts of hyper realised violence. But the air of unpredictabilty that Refn and Gosling bring to the screen, makes for a compelling and breathtaking masterclass of a ride that i really didn’t want to end.