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Drive is in essence a very basic movie of crime and revenge, but this sleek, meticulous and effortlessly cool film still feels like a giant coming-out party for its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, and star Ryan Gosling. Refn has been known in film nerd circles for the Pusher trilogy and the big and brash Bronson, and Gosling of course has an Oscar nomination (for Half Nelson) and a teen idol history (for The Notebook) to his name. But the two come together in Drive to create something new and thrumming with life, a movie about detachment that has an intoxicating staying power.
Gosling's character is never named, a stunt driver by day and getaway driver by night with a very clear mantra you've probably heard in the trailers-- he'll drive you to the location of your crime, wait exactly five minutes, and if you make it out in time drive you to safety. The film opens with a crackling and tense getaway scene that ends, of all places, among a crowd coming out of a game at the Staples Center; this combination of the mundane and the chintzy glamour of Los Angeles comes up over and over again in Drive, a movie in love with its city but also aware of its garish traps and eyesores. The action eventually makes its way to a suburban pawn shop, a dumpy apartment building and a vibrantly tacky Chinese restaurant, all of them under Refn's camera seeming both hopelessly ordinary and somehow alien.
The driver has spent his career keeping his distance from clients, confiding only in the owner of a local car shop (Bryan Cranston) where he works between movie gigs. Then he meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son (Kaden Leos), and eventually is convinced to help her newly-released-from-jail husband (Oscar Isaac) with a robbery that will clear his debts to some nasty people. Like so many best-laid plans, the heist goes terribly wrong and lands the driver in the crosshairs of two vicious gangsters, one of them a right-hand man played by Ron Perlman, and one of them Bernie, played by Albert Brooks as the scariest, most ordinary looking son of a bitch you'll ever meet.
That's pretty much it as far as the plot is concerned, leaving Refn's stylish camera and Gosling's tight-lipped performance to pick up the rest of the film and run with it. There's a little bit of emptiness at the heart of Drive, showing us a man who's decided to care about something for once but not really letting us in on that emotion ourselves. Gosling and Mulligan work nicely together as unlikely mates, but the mechanics of the plot keep them apart often and prevent them from building that bond into something more meaningful. And the story, which really isn't nearly as important in Drive as the style, still hinges on one enormous coincidence that grates; Refn and his screenwriter Hossein Amini seem too attached to the contrivances of old-school noir plots, but it would have been nice to see a story as smart as Drive's visual trappings.
You'll come out of Drive talking about the soundtrack from Cliff Martinez, who's been working with Steven Soderbergh since sex, lies and videotape but seems to really be emerging this year; you'll wonder where they got that killer scorpion jacket for Gosling, how they lit the elevator in the already-famous kiss scene, and frantically Google map the Chinese restaurant so you can descend in among those red walls like Albert Brooks. Drive is a movie that inspires devotion and demands a second, even more detail-oriented viewing, but it's not exactly passion that brings you back, but a desire to bask once again in the film's overall cool.