With no fewer than 20 previous features with the same title, one could well be forgiven lowering expectations for this thriller, even with Ryan Gosling in the starring role.
But this spacey, yet intense work, from Danish import Nicholas Winding Refn not only shows Gosling, the hot Hollywood property of the moment, firmly in control, but more than adequately challenged by Albert Brooks, near flawless as the urbane yet sadistic loan shark who dogs him almost from the beginning.
Our hero (he's never actually named) in fact moonlights as a wheelman (that is, he drives a getaway car for bank robbers, etc) in between doing movie stunts and working for a local mechanic, who cals him only "The Kid". In his apartment building, he meets Elise (Carey Mulligan) a young mother who's awaiting her partner's release from prison, but not, as it turns out with great anxiety. The two engage in a wonderfully underplayed semi-platonic affair.
Two dark threads interwine with this urban idyll. First, the mechanic fancies himself a stock car owner with the kid at the helm but, of course such things need money, and lots more of it than he can lay his hands on. Enter Brooks, who routes his operation through a pizza parlor owned by an outcast Jewish mafioso (the suitably creepy Ron Perlman).
The second issue is that Elise's spouse, a small-time hood with the oddly statesmanlike name of Standard Gabriel, has been sprung, but he still owes protection money to another bad guy, who's now demanding (with a serious beating as persuasion), that he rob a certain local pawnshop as part settlement on his "debt".
Seeing the distress that Gabriel's position places on mother and son, our hero chips in - he offers to drive the getaway car, of course. This brings him into contact with said bad guy and the luscious but hapless Christina Hendricks (Oh the fantasies...but, we digress), a gangster's moll who even the gangster is apt to ignore.
Of course, the job is a set-up. It yields an indeterminately large sum of cash, but also precipitates a high-speed chase and marks the step-up point in the movie's violence quotient. Gabriel is shot dead at the scene, and the luscious redhead is dispatched with a shotgun blast to head.
Gosling, forced to keep his head whilst all about him are losing theirs, demonstrates he knows his way around guns and improvised weapons the way he knows his way around cars. Also, as tender as he was with Elise, he's not baove slapping said gangster's moll half silly, in order to get at the truth.
Laconic, and with seemingly permanent half-smirk throughout the proceedings, our hero might seem hard to like, but Gosling does a good job of humanizing him and investing him with a strong, but off-kilter sense of morality.
The "Miami Vice-style" titles and cinematography may be a bit off-putting, depending on your visual taste, and there's also the near cheesy New Wave soundtrack (I'm not knocking New Wave). But beyond that, Drive is a silm in which heart and mind are aligned to offer some real surprises - most of them welcome.
Take it for a spin and see.