Overall verdict: 9.5/10
The Good: homage to Old school cinematography, intense action with no CGI, fresh take on a typical genre premise, recurring visual motiffs and underlying themes, nostalgic soundtrack, first class performances, very nuanced.
The Bad: nothing really. Except we do not get any hints as to the Driver's background or past.
Every once in a while, you get reminded of how a good action movie back in the old days need not be loud, and proud of it. With a look and feel of a long lost classic from the 70s, DRIVE is the ultimate tribute to all the good action movies of days long ago. It is heavy in symbolism, oozing with style. Perfect evidence that a good action movie can be deep, emotionally engaging and cheap to make.
Of course, calling it a mere action movie would not be doing DRIVE justice. The action is indeed hard hitting and fast paced. Thanks in full to danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. With No shakey cam gimmicks or extreme close-ups, the action is easy on the eye. His clear style of shooting and steady camera handling is a breath of fresh air in this age of frantic whip pans and fenetic cuts. Practical stunts and effects, free of computer generated tampering, add to the freshness and feel of realism in the movie.
Now DRIVE is not going to score points for originality. It is your typical "crime turned sour" plot only this time it involves an unnamed stunt driver (credited as "The driver) played by Ryan Gosling who "moonlights" as a getaway car for hire. Gosling's character is a true enigma, and perhaps that is his main attraction. Somewhat aloof and seemingly cold, he slowly warms up to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and later helps her and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) when Irene has car trouble at a local supermarket. A budding friendship blossoms but is cut short with the return of Irene's husband Standrad (Oscar Issac). Now Standard is an ex-con trying to get back on the lawful path but he is perssured into doing one more robbery to pay off protection money. A double cross ensues and the Driver, along with Standard's family, becomes a mobster target. His chance for happiness forever gone, The Driver unleashes his own brand of vengence against those who would harm the only friends he has left.
DRIVE excels not just in the unique execution of a tried and true story, but in the little nuances throughout the movie. Every character is thoroughly fleshed out thanks to the amazing acting. Even the "bad guys" are given a sympathetic side making them far more human than your typical mobster villians. Cast against this backdrop of a morally grey world is the black and white absolute that is the nameless Driver. What is his nature? What drives him to do what he does? He is the modern day "man with no name"; the silent cowboy who walks into town one day and takes out the outlaws.
True to the symbolism heavy style of the show, many little things carry a double or hidden meaning. From the symbol of the Driver's jacket to little bits of conversation that are seemingly mundane. Permeating throughout the movie is Director Refn's tendency to let the visuals tell the story; A emotional moment made all the more surreal with altered lighting, a completely silent scene that speaks volumes through a single facial expression and creative editing. Rare indeed does is a crime movie able to carry as much tension in their chase scenes as DRIVE.
The keyboard music compused by Clint Martinez just screams "nostalgia" and harkens back to the synthesizer era in film scoring. Adding to the nuanced nature of DRIVE is the soundtrack with songs by famous electronica musicians. Yet do not dismiss them as just background music. Their very lyrics bears meaning within the context of the movie's narrative. Listen for them.
Normally, a movie like this would be pushed to the public as a blockbuster. "The Transporter", "The Fast and the Furious", they are all movies of similar genre and all all marketed as blockbusters. Yet DRIVE never tries to be one. It certainly has the DNA but presents itself more as an old school crime noir thriller with elements of romance and drama. It remembers that a good movie does not just ride on its chase scenes, loud crashes or well choreographed action. A good script with top grade actors to carry it, a sense of style and the little things unsaid still count for a lot.
This is almost like a cynical poke at the blockbuster cars-and-crime genre. DRIVE retains all their thrills, all their adrenaline yet never sacrifices good story and characters all for a fraction of their budget.
Go For it: if you like a smart, deep and thoroughly intense departure from a typical hollywood blockbuster that works as a perfect tribute to 80s era mob/crime movies.
Avoid it: if you love your action with shakey cam or need modern CGI in your car crashes.
Replay value: A-