Ryan Gosling's Driver, so known for his skill behind the wheel - be it for a getaway car, a racing vehicle or a stunt in a movie - doesn't have an awful lot to say, subscribing to the 'actions speak louder than words' philosophy and keeping himself to himself as much as possible.
The closest person he has to a friend is Shannon (Bryan Cranston), owner of the garage where he works and a facilitator of both his gigs as stunt driver and getaway man. Shannon also has plans to go into racing with Driver as his, well, driver but he needs an investor. This brings the young man into the orbit of Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his partner-in-crime, Nino (Ron Perlman), the former the civil pyschopath yin to the latter brutish thug's yang.
As bad luck, or bad timing would have it, Driver has recently found a reason to break out of his self-imposed solitude: his pretty neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her cute young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). He takes them both for spins in his car, and Irene out on a couple of dates, but not before too long, Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and returns to his family.
Discovering that Standard is into some thugs for a great deal of money, and sensing the possible threat to mother and child, Driver agrees to help Standard out of his predicament with one last job. Of course, it all goes pear-shaped and the men and money Standard was connected to happens to be connected to Nino, setting in motion a chain reaction and the film's ultra-violent second half.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's new film (from a screenplay by Hossein Amini and adapted from a book by James Sallis) is as lean and muscular as his unnamed protagonist. A homage to the cars and heist films of the 1980s, including over-the-top violence and a great pop synth soundtrack (props to Cliff Martinez), Drive is a B-grade film executed at an A-grade level and arguably the coolest film of 2011.
And that's left some critics accusing it of being more style than substance, and too insular for regular cinemagoers to embrace. Drive is not Fast and Furious 5, and thank god for that. Refn, who won best Director at Cannes this year, may be making his first American film but he hasn't gone Hollywood. Anyone complaining that Drive doesn't deliver on what it promises (apparently the trailer is "misleading" to some), doesn't really have a complaint at all. Does one complain when they order Passion Pop and are served Bollinger instead?
A minor quibble (and I say this as a huge admirer of the actress) is Carey Mulligan. She seems out of place in this milieu - an English rose in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles - but my problem isn't with her performance (she's perfectly fine), simply that she isn't given a lot to do. Still, one can fully understand and appreciate Driver's desire to protect her and kill for her.
And this is, after all, Ryan Gosling's film. The young actor is so hot right now (we've just seen him in Crazy, Stupid, Love and we're soon to see him again in the political thriller, The Ides of March) and his performance here is cool personified. Driver may not say that much but Gosling's silence says a whole lot; those dreamy eyes can be equally as menacing when pushed and not for nothing does Driver sport a scorpion on his favourite jacket.
But whether for the cool factor, the homage, the violence or Gosling, do make a point of seeing Drive. If there is such a genre as art house action, then Refn's film is the perfect example of it, or perhaps the birth of it. And I say, bring it on.