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Monday, Sept. 19, 2011

Drive

Ryan Gosling's sensitive stunt driver

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Coolness under fire is the mark of a film-noir hero, and the unnamed protagonist of Drive—everyone just calls him Driver—neither blinks nor flinches when the heat is on. Played with wary determination and diffident sensitivity by Ryan Gosling, Driver is the role a young Steve McQueen might have died for. With its rhythm of roaring speed alternating with pregnant stillness, Drive is sometimes reminiscent of McQueen's 1971 racing classic, Le Mans.

But Driver never fulfills his dream of becoming a professional racer. He's a Hollywood stunt double by day, the man behind the wheel in the dangerous pileups, and a getaway driver by night. He is a pro among criminals and sets the rules for anyone who chooses to hire him. Driver is as precise as the proverbial Swiss watch, and seemingly as stingy with his feelings as a Swiss banker.

Driver softens upon meeting the neighbor in his seedy apartment building, sweet-faced Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her child, Benicio. Their pleasant idyll ends when Irene's husband is released from prison but not from the debts he incurred while behind bars. Trying to help him out of a bad situation, Driver finds himself racing in a dark labyrinth of double-crossed criminal conspiracy. His skill behind the wheel and split-second responses will serve him well.

Adapted by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini from James Sallis' pulp-fiction novel, Drive is everything neo-noir should be but seldom achieves. The score is chilly electronica and the dialogue taciturn and sparse, with every word weighed for its value. The car chases, with their low-slung, road-hugging perspectives, are among the best in recent film, and the more intimate scenes move at a '70s art-house pace, endowing every frame with significance. Quentin Tarantino fans will find bone-breaking violence and devotees of cinematography will be arrested by the dark beauty of Los Angeles at night, its inky web of streets spreading between the lights of the dark glass towers.

Like any good noir hero, Driver is a bit of a stranger in his own time. He's capable of bad things, but restrained by conscience from doing the worst. Most of his associates lack his moral brake pedal, setting the hero on a collision course with the world.

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