'Drive' Coolly Cruises, Then Crashes
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Rupert Pupkin: I studied everything you ever did; I studied the way you built to your one-liners, nice and relaxed, how you delivered the jokes without leaning too much on them, how you didn't say, "Hey, folks, here's the punch line," you know, Jerry? You know what I'm talking about?
Jerry Langford: You don't say, "Folks, here's the punch line"; you just DO the punch line.
Rupert Pupkin: Exactly! That's what I loved about what you did!
-- "The King of Comedy" (1983)
"Drive," not quite the U.S. filmmaking debut from Danish directorial sensation Nicolas Winding Refn (he fumbled big with the John Turturro-starring "Fear X" in 2003), caused quite a sensation at this year's Cannes Film Festival, from which many critics hailed it as a refreshing jolt of genre adrenaline in a gloomy sea of challenging art cinema. So imagine this viewer's surprise at finding the film to be about two-thirds' worth of a pretty good to quite good action picture and one-third worth of affected, highfalutin, practically insufferably portentous, pretentious "Hey, folks, here's the punch line" malarkey.
Refn's brutal "Pusher" trilogy, three nicely warped films of relentless violence and even more relentless overall bad vibes, put a steel-toed boot up the sensibilities of both film-fest mavens and adventurous fan boys in the earlier part of the last decade while scarily addressing the not-too-frequently-asked-in-these-parts question "Just how bad is the drug-related crime scene in Denmark, anyway?" One ironically irritating thing about "Drive" is that it feels very European in ways that Refn's actually European films did not. Not just European. Yurrupean.
Dig this: The film's hero is a young, handsome, extremely taciturn expert driver (Ryan Gosling) who keeps together fixing cars and doing movie stunt work but who, with the help of a crusty but affectionate mentor, wants to break into the racing circuit. The other thing about him is that he also sidelines as a getaway driver for absconding criminals. And of course, as such, he has his rules concerning timing, and what he'll do and won't do, which are all very in keeping with the mythic ethic of the heroic man who lived outside the law. (He's extremely honest, as he must be.) But the other-other thing about him is that he has no name. Now, heroes with no name are not really a problem with genre films; one of this picture's direct precursors, Walter Hill's wonderful 1978 film "The Driver" features just such a hero. Only "The Driver" doesn't nudge you in the ribs every five minutes to remind you that its hero doesn't have a name. The thing that makes action-packed but intriguingly enigmatic action films such as that or "Bullitt" so seductive is that they don't spend too much time telling you how terse and elliptical they are; they just are terse and elliptical.
That's not to say that the film doesn't have its genre pleasures. The set piece in its center, in which Gosling's driver takes on a crime job as a mission of mercy, and has to deal with one brutal double cross and disaster after another, truly is one of the most incredible sustained pieces of cinematic action and suspense to come from any moviemaker anywhere in a long, long time, and it's absolutely worth the price of admission. But those pleasures are encased in a story line (adapted from a short novel by James Sallis) so rudimentary as to almost be some kind of contemptuous joke (suffice it to say that by this film's lights, all crime in Los Angeles is an extremely intimate affair).
And the flourishes just keep upping the pretentiousness ante. The notion of romance between the driver and Irene, a young mom in his apartment building (the British actress Carey Mulligan, doing some rather pointless quasi-hip art-genre slumming), is oh-so-delicately broached and deliberately skirted throughout, until a moment late-ish in the film, set in an elevator, distended for maximum quasi-operatic effect, when the driver bestows upon Irene a long, tender kiss ... and then turns around to face, then floor, and then stomp the stuffing out of, the elevator's other occupant, a hood who intends to bring harm to Irene and her precious little fella. And in case you don't "get" how Refn and company are charting the extremes between tenderness and violence that can be reached within mere seconds of each other -- mind-blowing when you think about it, right? -- Refn makes sure you can actually hear the poor hood's jawbone snap away from the rest of his skull. Pretty heavy, man.
And a little bit after that, in case we missed the significance of the image of the scorpion sewn into the driver's jacket, the driver himself relates to villain Bernie (Albert Brooks, whose effectiveness as a slimeball should be no surprise to anyone who's seen "Out of Sight," and I guess a lot of folks who saw this at Cannes never saw "Out of Sight") the story of the scorpion and the frog. Which was told to brilliant effect in Orson Welles' "Mr. Arkadin," then to telling effect in Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game," and third time the director's trying way too hard. And after that point, the film really starts to sink under the weight of its own affectations. I'd recommend to viewers who want to maintain their good impression of this picture to check out a couple of minutes after the character played by Christina Hendricks does. That's the spot at which "Drive" has been all that it could be.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.