He daylights as a stuntman, moonlights as a getaway driver, and finds in Carey Mulligan a good reason to stick around.
Ryan Gosling exudes no-sweat professionalism in Drive, a shamelessly entertaining genre movie from director Nicolas Winding Refn that plays like an exalted episode of Miami Vice or a stealth version of Shane.
As the enigmatic Man With No Name and Few Words, Gosling is a knight in shining bomber jacket, a white-satin affair with a scorpion embroidered on the back. He takes a shine to his neighbor, Irene (Mulligan), a cherubic mom, and her young son (Kaden Leos), as the two wait out Daddy's prison sentence.
Driver (as he is identified in the credits) is a hired wheel who favors plain-Jane vehicles with lots of horses under the hood, all the better to confound and outspeed the cops.
Driver doesn't carry a weapon, simply uses whatever is handy - his fists, a hammer, a tire iron - in bursts of bloody violence that suggest he knows his way around a gun cylinder almost as well as a cylinder block.
His mentor is Shannon (Bryan Cranston, grizzled and gimpy), for whom he works as a mechanic and who represents him both in his stunt and getaway gigs. Shannon hopes to make Driver a legitimate race-car hero, soliciting backing from mobbed-up moneymen Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. The former is nastily funny; the latter, just nasty.
Sleekly made by Refn, the Danish filmmaker who took the best director prize for Drive at Cannes, the film is stylish, suspenseful, and laced with sentimentality. Refn uses silence and subliminal synthesizer sounds to ratchet up the tension (listen to the squ-e-e-e-a-k of Driver peeling off his racing gloves as he is being stalked) and techno-pop accompanying slo-mo sequences to amplify the romantic angle.
Gosling chews on an unlit match to steady Driver's nerves - and ours - but only nibbles at the scenery, a nocturnal Los Angeles ribboned with roads that have more curves than Mulligan's heart-shaped lips. His self-contained performance is one of almost ethereal impassivity, his responses a beat later than expected, and a half-beat ahead of his adversaries; Refn skillfully plays with the rhythms of his characters and their cars.
Drive takes a hairpin turn when its hero volunteers to drive getaway in a heist by Irene's newly released spouse (Oscar Isaac). The result is uniquely satisfying Nordic Noir for those who can stomach the violence. It's not art, but arty mainstream.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. With Ryan Gosling, Christina Hendricks, and Carey Mulligan. Distributed by FilmDistrict.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: R (intense violence, nudity, profanity)
Playing at: area theatersEndText
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