Drive revives the sweet smell of burning rubber

An early scene in the propulsive Drive finds Ryan Gosling’s mobile character securing a new set of wheels for an underworld getaway he’s planning.

Ryan Gosling’s performance in Drive recalls a young Steve McQueen or Robert De Niro

Ryan Gosling’s performance in Drive recalls a young Steve McQueen or Robert De Niro


3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Rated: 18A

An early scene in the propulsive Drive finds Ryan Gosling’s mobile character securing a new set of wheels for an underworld getaway he’s planning.

His agent/helper Shannon (Bryan Cranston) offers him a Chevy Impala, the most popular car in the state of California.

“No one will be looking at you,” Shannon says.

Correction: People may not notice the car on the streets of Los Angeles, which director Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) lights and scores to the neon pulse of the 1980s. At least until the wheels start squealing, that is.

But anyone watching Drive won’t be able to take their eyes off Gosling. Playing a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for criminals, he rocks like a young Steve McQueen or Robert De Niro.

The film rolls like a hybrid of Bullitt and Taxi Driver, with Gosling stepping up his game and demonstrating his chops as an action anti-hero in the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick vein.

The only name available for his character is Driver, and he has a very simple and unbreakable rule of transport for his crooked clientele. He’ll wait five minutes and five minutes only, no more or no less, for them to do their dirty work and hop back inside to evade the cops.

While waiting, Driver checks the time on an analog wristwatch, which seems oddly imprecise, and listens to a ball game in between police reports on his mobile scanner. His pulse never seems to rise and neither does his voice.

Driver has one other rule: “I don’t carry a gun . . . I drive.”

He doesn’t explain himself, just like his namesake in the pulpy James Sallis novella that screenwriter Hossein Amini draws from.

You can read the book in almost the same amount of time as the film runs. But it’s clear Driver sees himself as an action figure in a movie, set in the 1980s but also drawing inspiration from the 1970s.

It’s appropriate that another of Drive’s obvious influences is Walter Hill’s The Driver, released in 1978, which straddled the two decades.

Driver chews on a toothpick like Al Pacino in Serpico, and his silk silver jacket is emblazoned with a scorpion, making him seem like a kid trying to be a superhero.

And he is, like Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass or Rainn Wilson in Super, except he’s not kidding around. His day job as a stunt driver is about creating Hollywood fantasies, but his night job as a criminal wheelman is dangerous and brutal reality.

Driver’s skills are almost supernatural, and Shannon sells him exactly this way: “You put this kid behind the wheel, there’s nothing he can’t do.”

Shannon is speaking to mob leader Bernie Rose, whom funnyman Albert Brooks plays with a coiled menace no one would have expected from him.

There’s a deal in the works to have Rose purchase an expensive muscle car that Driver will race for more — even though money doesn’t motivate him.

Driver has a violent streak — watch out for those boots — but he’s a romantic at heart, even if his heart barely seems to beat. He has his eye on Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mother who needs his help. He’ll do anything to assist her, and anything is really something, especially when best-laid plans turn sour.

Drive is a movie of oil, blood and bone and not for the easily offended.

Anyone who has seen Refn’s earlier movies Bronson, Valhalla Rising and the Pusher trilogy know of the Danish director’s love of extreme violence, even when it isn’t strictly necessary for a scene.

Refn, who won a prize at Cannes for Drive, spent his formative years haunting grindhouse cinemas in New York, where he lived for a spell.

He also loves music, often making choices that seem illogical on paper but work so well on screen. A case in point is Cliff Martinez’s pulsing score for Drive, which is supplemented with current acts paying tribute to ’80s synth-pop sounds.

Drive doesn’t reinvent the wheel of the automobile action movie but it certainly revs the engine.

The two words for action satisfaction this fall?

“I drive.”

Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.

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