3 out of 4 stars
When it opens with dark visuals, low-budget magenta cut + paste script font credits and a porn-appropriate synthesized backing score, "Drive" reminds the viewer of '80s direct-to-cable, late-night B-films. You're in a time warp and feeling like you might have just been snookered. I'm paying good money to see this?
Then it starts getting serious.
The cast includes that girl from "An Education" (Carrey Mulligan), the redhead from "Mad Men" (Christina Hendricks), the father from "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Breaking Bad" (Bryan Cranston), Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. You say to yourself -- hey -- this might not be half bad. Then you see Ryan Gosling wearing gloves and driving a muscle car. You're not sure if the movie will be good, but you're pretty sure it won't be boring.
Gosling is the kind of actor who does the occasional high-visibility audience pleaser ("The Notebook" or "Crazy, Stupid, Love."), but prefers to do stuff like this ("Lars and the Real Girl," "Blue Valentine," "Half Nelson"). He's Nicolas Cage without the cheese or Al Pacino sans the tortured self-awareness. He's quite simply one of our greatest living actors and can play almost any part with unwavering conviction and believability.
In "Drive" Gosling -- identified only as the Driver -- is just that -- a for-hire movie stuntman who can crash a car during a chase scene and emerge unscathed and unshaken. He does just OK and chooses to supplement his income with heist jobs organized by his semi-cripple stunt coordinator friend (Cranston) -- let's call him the Planner. These guys are in "show business" but are on the bottom tier. You can easily understand their economic motives.
Tired of their lot in life and looking to branch out, the Driver and the Planner hook up with some mid-level "made" guys (Brooks and Perlman) who together might be able to brew a satisfactory cup of coffee. We're pretty sure that the four of them are going to conjure up some half-baked scheme or will butt heads along the way and all off it will get terribly ugly.
Gosling's hand-picked director (Nicolas Winding Refn -- yes that's his real name) does the near-impossible by taking a sloppy, haphazard premise and turning it into something that almost, kind of works real well. The movie is only 90 or so minutes long and takes forever to get going but when it does, it will more than get your attention and it occasionally borders on brilliant.
In a manner not unlike that in "The Godfather" trilogy or "GoodFellas," "Drive" punctuates the listlessness boredom and nothingness with brief, unexpected and accentuated bursts of pure terror. Nothing substantial happens and then -- bam -- carnage and bloodletting. In other words -- mob life as it really is, not as Hollywood mostly paints it.
The problem -- and it's a big one -- is that "Drive" is not a mob flick or a crime movie as such -- it's a mood piece. The Driver isn't into the whole mob mentality, but is a mobster in his own disenfranchised way. He's a loner who unexpectedly -- an unwittingly -- finds himself caring about something beyond himself and takes on a visceral mind set he never knew he had in order to protect it. He doesn't like what's happening to him or what he has to do to. He simply reacts.
There's nothing really wrong with "Drive" but it's hard to figure out who will want to rush out and see it. There's not enough romance, the violence is too sporadic, brief and graphic and all of it just hangs there in nebulous oblivion. There's not even a solid ending.
It's about as close to unglamorous real life as a crime story gets with no winners or losers, only survivors -- and they are few.
Go for the acting clinic put on by the cast. To coin a tired phrase -- there are no small parts in movies, only small performances and there is nothing small to be found in "Drive." You might not like what happens in the movie but you'll fully appreciate how it's done. (FilmDistrict)