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"Just shut up and keep your eyes on the road, and just Drive" she said.

dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

Few films live up to the hype. No films really can. Hype is hype, by its nature an aggravating and ephemeral thing, which complicates how we appreciate films. It complicates the way we come to them, the angle we come at them from.

Drive is one of those deliriously (critically, not commercially) hyped flicks that, of course, can’t live up to the hype. The critical hype obscured, for me, what the flick was actually like, and about, to the point where I expected one thing, and got something completely different.

I thought this was going to be a somewhat more enjoyable or thoughtful action flick to do with some guy who can drive really fast. What it ended up being is more of a standard neo-noir crime flick. That’s not a knock against it or any of the people involved here, because my expectations and assumptions aren’t worth shit.

Really, it’s a very regular, very familiar kind of flick, with a very familiar set of characters, and a very predictable outcome. Along the way, though, it’s well acted, very well directed, and kind of arresting.

The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a taciturn, competent man, who always wears, even later on when it’s covered in blood, a white jacket with the image of a scorpion. Why? Well, maybe it looks cool to someone back in the 1980s. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine the default leader of an unpopular and weak gang wearing in The Warriors.

Perhaps, though, since this isn’t a particularly subtle film, it’s meant to remind us of the story of the frog and the scorpion, the ultimate message being the punchline of “it’s my nature”. Our driver, and protagonist, has a nature. We’re not entirely made privy to it, but it seems to be a cool, sociopathically violent nature overlayed with a placid, professional demeanour.

The flick opens with a tremendous scene of heart-pumping, compelling action. The driver drives two criminal morons to their break-in job, and does the getaway duties, co-ordinating a hell of a lot of details, and coolly dealing with every eventuality that comes up along the way.

Such a great scene. It’s an even greater shame that it reminds the viewer of the propulsive opening of The Dark Knight, only in that it’s a tremendous action scene designed to also tell us everything we need to know about one of our main characters. The problem here is that no other scene matching it follows.

Oh, sure, there are plenty of other solid scenes of a dramatic nature. But they’re of a dramatic nature. Who the fuck wants drama when you could be blowing shit up or crashing into things?

I guess it’s supposed to give us more meaning, or enjoyment, if the Driver is humanised, and if other characters are developed and stuff happens to them.

That’s disappointment being expressed, right there.

He (he’s never named, don’t blame me for the lack of specificity) lives in LA, on the same floor as a young blonde woman who he notices. She (Carey Mulligan) has a son, and spends the whole flick finding ways to look wholesome and winsome.

The tentative steps he takes towards developing a relationship with her and her son have to be put on hold, since her jailbird husband (Oscar Isaac) is coming home soon.

How much does that suck. Our zombie protagonist seems slightly put out, but since he rarely if ever shows any emotion, it’s hard to tell.

When he’s not driving aimlessly around, or working on movies as a stunt driver, or working on cars, his sad sack employer (Bryan Cranston, not playing Walt White at all) is talking him up to anyone and everyone who crosses his crippled field of view. He especially talks him up to a local crime lord (Albert Brooks) from whom he hopes to get a huge chunk of change in order to buy a stock car for racing in NASCAR or some level of racing more low rent than that.

It often surprises me in flicks when people go to murderous criminals for large sums of money. I’m sure people go to murderous criminals for loans in real life, either out of desperation or stupidity or arrogance. And that should hold true in movies too, I guess. It’s just that when it happens, it always makes me think that the characters in movies can only do these kinds of things because they haven’t ever, in their worlds, watched these kinds of flicks.

Needless to say, nothing ever goes well or smoothly in life or in this film. Our Driver hero, who is a criminal anyway, feels compelled to get involved in a job that isn’t a paying gig, as in, there’s an emotional attachment reason he gets involved, ultimately being the protection of the pale winsome damsel and her son. The job, which involves the stunning Christina Hendricks, best known as playing Joan Holloway on Mad Men, goes splendiferously bad, resulting in lots of ramifications for our Driver and everyone around him.

And then she’s wasted. Why even have her in the flick, if all she’s going to do is look awesome and whimper as she’s slapped around and let her speak a single line of dialogue? There’s 100 million other women in the States who you could waste in such a role. Why use Hendricks so pointlessly? What, you couldn’t afford Dame Judi Dench?

Refn has made some incredibly violent flicks, but there’s a scene in this flick, whose set up seems to be especially cruel for the audience, even more so than the person that it happens to. A sweet, romantic moment is followed seconds later by a scene of such brutality that it almost seems like a parody. Let me just imply rather than spell it out; it makes the kerb-biting scene in American History X seem tame by comparison.

In fact, it’s so ridiculously over the top that it took me out of the flick, and made the flick around it look somehow lesser. The main character is calm, calm, calm, calm – psychopathically violent – calm, calm, calm, which is meant to represent depth and complexity, but really he just chugs along as a void - plot device in a flick in which he’s present in almost every scene. And however well-acted, he’s not really that different from the millions of characters who populate films where someone kills a bunch of other people for whatever reason. He’s ultimately no different from The Punisher or Charles Bronson in Death Wish or any other revenge-seeking thriller, even if he’s young and hot looking.

Albert Brooks is the one who brings something different to the table here. He’s made a career out of playing neurotic chattery lunatics, and even directed some decent flicks, but here he’s the calm, old school criminal who has plenty of exhausted regrets, but who gets the job done with professional efficiency. He was able to get across a whole kind of history for his character that doesn’t need to be spelled out. It’s something that works for him that doesn’t work for Gosling’s character.

This is a very standard story, with subtractions rather than embellishments. Some of them work, some of them perhaps don’t. You know the story too, especially if you’ve seen the older film noir kinds of crime movies that used to stink up the cinemas back in the 1940s.

Try this set of clichés on for size: a reformed criminal who lives a quite life starts a relationship with a sweet, innocent woman, which gives him hope for redemption. Against his will, he gets dragged into a criminal caper, which is usually promised to be One Last Job. The job goes awry, people die, and the crim loses everything.

That’s not how it plays out here, exactly, but it’s been the template for crime flicks and novels for nearly a century. Even if you put a Gosling in the lead, it’s still the same old rope being spruced up and sold, and I’m not buying it at the moment.

Against that, of course, you have to balance out the pleasure derived from watching an actor as compelling as Gosling do his thing. As opposed to all his other flicks, he doesn’t rub his face and neck compulsively for once, which is good. He makes a lot of good choices (and a few bad ones) with the character. Everyone else except Albert Brooks and maybe Bryan Cranston might as well have not turned up.

There’s nothing really here convincing me that the flick exists in a real world. People, being the Driver, do things that make no sense as real world behaviour (like continuing to wear a jacket covered in blood when every cop in LA must be after him), but I guess seemed cool to him? He dons a latex mask to obscure his identity in a scene where obscuring his identity is irrelevant.

But I guess it looked cool?

It’s very well-directed, and conspicuously retro in its aesthetics and set design, ideally recalling a kinder, gentler age where crime films were less formulaic and more brutal (ie. the 70s), but it wasn’t enough to convince me this was really that different. There’s the structure of a great film here, but not the core of it.

And in the end, all I took away from it is that the Driver really liked Driving, and that’s about it.

reasons why I don’t need a soundtrack that has a chorus of ‘he’s a hero and a real human being’ playing incessantly to convince me that the violent psychopath in the film is a hero and a real human being out of 10

“My hands are dirty”
- “Mine, too.” – Drive