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Drive Shifts So Many Gears, It’s Hard to Pinpoint Greatness

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by Hossein Amini from the book by James Sallis
Film District, 2011

Refn directed the well-regarded Bronson, which I haven’t seen, but he also did a movie called Valhalla Rising, one that I couldn’t make it through.  You see, there are two extremes in storytelling.  There is the Michael Bay, who throws everything at the screen and quick-cuts and has never heard of the word “minimize.”  Then you have Refn, whom I have seen just enough work to know that he’s on the opposite end of the spectrum: he’s slow and methodical.

There is a place for both styles of filmmaking, and I’d day that Refn gets it down for the most part in Drive.  But there are sections of this movie that precariously hang the film’s potential enjoyment from a cliff.  These are the scenes that make it hard to glow about this movie.

Drive stars the awesome Ryan Gosling as, of course, Driver (to be really mysterious, never give them a name).  He’s a Hollywood stunt driver who also gets some dirty work from his pal/boss/father figure Shannon (Bryan Cranston).  This work involves being the getaway car, and in the extremely tense and bravura opening sequence, we get to see him do what he does, evading police and helicopters, listening in on their scanners, and even a radio broadcast of a Lakers game proves important.  This is the movie I thought I was getting.  Two or three more scenes brilliantly constructed like this, I’m calling it the Best of the Year.

But then Driver meets single mother Irene (Carey Mulligan), who lives with her little kid Benicio (Kaden Leos) down the hall from Driver’s apartment.  He takes to the kid well.  They begin a pseudo-romance.  They’re friends, he doesn’t quite make any moves, and then just when it looks like romance is about to blossom, Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets sprung from prison.  The scenes with Driver and Irene are numerous and very slow during this section of the film.  And it starts to present the problem of taking your time when you should hurry up.

Shannon gets Driver a gig potentially racing cars with the financial backing of Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and a Jewish pizza parlor owner, Nino (Ron Perlman).  These are bad guys, but we don’t exactly know how at first.  Meanwhile, Standard owes “protection money” that keeps skyrocketing day-by-day and he’s going to get killed if he doesn’t pay it.  Driver, feeling for Standard via his family, decides to help him knock off a pawn shop where the owner is rumored to stash a million dollars, seed money for a L.A. gangsta lifestyle.  And this is where a made-down Christina Hendricks (still hot) enters the picture as a thief named Blanche.

Something goes wrong here, and this is where the picture turns ultra-violent.  It’s over-the-top kind of violence that is either going to make you laugh at the audacity or look away in disgust.  It really is some of the most brutal bloodletting that you can put on screen and not get an NC-17 out of it.  I think watching it again, the shock of it will be let out and you can enjoy it more for what it is: very well constructed, tense action.

So the good: Gosling, and the action.  And always fun to see Cranston, Brooks, and Perlman.  To think, these wonderful character actors are all in the same movie!  And the bad: the extremely slow romantic build-up that tears the movie up for awhile.  Overall, this is still a good picture that could have been helped with some better pacing.  September has been way better than the bulk of the summer so far.

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