As far as I’m concerned, up-and-coming Latino hottie Oscar Isaac takes the studmuffin cake over current A-lister/former Disney kid Ryan Gosling any day of the week. Which isn’t to say that Gosling’s unattractive; far from it. It’s simply that Isaac, with his olive skin, dark bedroom eyes, and curly black hair, falls more in line with my own personal heartthrob ideal.
You can see both actors, not incidentally, in the new action film Drive, in which Gosling plays “Driver,” a Hollywood stunt car operator who loans himself out as a wheelman for criminals on the side. Isaac, in a smaller role, portrays the quirkily-named Standard. He’s the husband of Irene (Carey Mulligan), Driver’s pretty young neighbor down the hall who’s been raising her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) alone ever since Standard got thrown in the slammer.
Driver is one of those brooding anti-heroes we’ve seen countless times before – the silent tough who talks mostly with his eyes. He’s been conceived in the mold of the classic Western gunslinger – a 21st century Man with No Name, transported from the wide-open vistas of the Old West to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. A setting where horses are swapped out for ’73 Chevy Malibus.
Driver’s skills behind the wheel are so exceptional that his mechanic/manager Shannon (Bryan Cranston) is trying to maneuver him into a career as a professional race-car driver. To make the dream a reality, he’s currently seeking out capital from cold-hearted mob boss Bernie Rose (an against-type Albert Brooks).
Meanwhile, Irene is quickly falling under Driver’s Zen-like spell. Her interest begins with furtive glances down the hall and later increases when he offers her a ride home from Shannon’s shop, where she’s brought in her car for repairs.
So begins a lovely, free-wheeling scene that has Driver taking Irene and Benicio on a jaunt through a Los Angeles aqueduct in his car; they later feed ducks in a tucked-away patch of wilderness surrounded by concrete. In an indication of the man’s essential goodness, once they arrive home he carries the sleeping boy into Irene’s apartment as she looks on, dewy-eyed.
Unfortunately for the two would-be lovers, trouble begins when Standard is released from prison and later reveals – after Driver discovers him bloodied and beaten in the garage of their apartment building – that he owes Bernie and his gang a considerable amount of money. If he doesn’t pay, they’ve threatened to come after his wife and son.
That dilemma, as you might have guessed, the Driver cannot abide. Acting purely on emotion for perhaps the first time in his adult life – he’s fallen in love with Irene, though he never voices it – he agrees to be Standard’s wheelman for a big-money pawnshop robbery that will allow him to pay off his debts and keep his family safe.
Of course, the robbery doesn’t at all go according to plan, and what follows in the outburst of blood and bullets is a stunning action sequence that actually warrants the platitude “edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.”
But then what happens isn’t the thing that’s surprising here; it’s how it happens.Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn, who helmed the ultra-gory 2008 Tom Hardy vehicle Bronson and last year’s Viking film Valhalla Rising, stages this first explosion of violence with such tight, uber-stylish precision it’s clear he’s working far outside the confines of the standard Hollywood car-chase template.
Refn’s rigorous craftsmanship is elevated by the fact that he never overshoots; this is no Fast and the Furious sequel or Michael Bay monstrosity. The action here never overtly breaks the laws of physics – of what actual cars and human beings are capable of.
Grounding the sequence in this way makes it superior to the big, dumb, blow-‘em-up stuff we’ve all grown accustomed to over the last several decades because it allows the audience to truly put themselves inside the action. As a result, it sidesteps the usual Hollywood trap of mistaking spectacle for intensity.
Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston
Gosling, who used his A-list starpower to hand-pick Refn for the job after being impressed with his previous work, is similarly top-notch here. While I have yet to see him demonstrate a wide range of ability – many of his recent performances have felt a little samey-samey to me – he manages to do quite a lot with very little in this role. He is alternately the embodiment of cool – a man of few words who never leaves home without donning an eye-catching, scorpion-embroidered silk bomber jacket – and, as his mile-long stare suggests, an individual deeply haunted by some never-broached past trauma.
The talented Mulligan also does wonders here, at least with the little she’s given to work with. While her role feels somewhat sidelined in a film that’s ultimately designed for the straight-male gaze (the body count, I should note, comes close to approaching that of your standard Sylvester Stallone action flick from the ‘80s, with all the blood-soaked gore you’d expect), she manages to imbue Irene with an essential inner sweetness and vulnerability that transcends the underwritten nature of the role.
All around, the cast here is pretty extraordinary. Albert Brooks, set free from the reigns of his usual neurotic comedy persona, is a terrifying silver-tongued menace who has lost all moral grounding in his rise to the higher echelons of the criminal underworld. Ron Perlman, who plays Bernie’s right-hand man Nino, is the loud-mouthed Joe Pesci to Brooks’ more polished Robert De Niro, and he chews scenery admirably in a small part.
As a busty gang moll, on the other hand, Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks is the logical extension of Mulligan’s ultimately thankless character – a doormat who exists merely to present an attractive front for the dastardly deeds of the men who control her. She’s not given much to do but suck on cigarettes, scowl, cry and scream – but hell, better to play the part of the useless broad in a high-art action film like Drive than one of the innumerable Hollywood blockbusters we’re bombarded with every summer. Nevertheless, it’s too bad they couldn’t have given her character just a little more meat.
One final note on the film’s soundtrack, a masterfully hypnotic piece of work pairing the ambient score of frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez with electro-pop songs by artists including Desire, Chromatics and Kravinsky& Lovefoxx. When these mesmerizing tracks are combined with the frequent, gorgeously-composed slo-mo shots utilized by Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel throughout the film (watch for the elevator scene), the overall effect is one of spellbinding, transcendent beauty.
The same could be said of Drive as a whole – a film that overcomes all the retro-‘70sguy-movie trappings and grisly genre mayhem to exert an almost primordial pull. It’s less an action movie for people who think – although it’s that, too – than for those who want to get lost.
Drive comes out this Friday, September 16th