It seems like any movie that features fast cars and/or people driving these cars is expected to drool over these machines. Sure, there will be brainless, muscle-bound characters behind the wheel but who cares about them? If it doesn’t have four wheels, a shiny coat of paint and take turns like a dream, it’s simply a distraction. ‘Drive’ is anything but this

A quiet man known only as Driver (Ryan Gosling) works as a mechanic by day, and a stuntman on the side. Every so often, he acts as the getaway driver, and only as the driver, for various criminal elements. His boss at the garage, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) sets up his jobs and allows Driver to maintain his anonymity. Shannon has the bright idea to buy a stock car for the Driver to race and make real money. To do this, he must borrow $300,000 from Bernie (Albert Brooks), a mobster. Bernie is also involved with a shady guy criminal as Nino (Ron Perlman).

The Driver keeps to himself, but he meets and befriends his neighbors Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) eventually comes home from prison

but it saddled with loads of debt which is called ‘protection money.’ If he can’t come up with this, Irene and Benicio will be in danger of being harmed by an Albanian gangster known as Cook (James Biberi).

Standard decides that he must rob a pawn shop to come up with the money. Driver is only willing to help him to protect Irene and Benicio.

Let’s just say, things don’t go smoothly and a complicated situation arises.

Right off the bat, there are a few chase scenes in here, but this is equally interested in style and substance. The film has a very distinct, almost retro noir approach. From the ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’ (a video game) font with the opening credits to the incredibly insistent (and memorable) synth music throughout. Though the story takes place in modern Los Angeles, it has the look of belonging in Miami during the 80’s. Some of the wordless night driving scenes could pass for a Depeche Mode music video.

At the root of it, this is an uncomplicated heist/mob movie. Actually, it’s less about the actual heist and more about the consequences of the action. Rather than building up to the robbery, this is shown reasonably early on while the rest of the story is more of the mob trying to kill Driver. Easier said than done.

The chemistry between Driver and Irene is very unconventional. It is so intense that there are long stretches without dialog where they just seem to stare at each other, finally, mercifully breaking the silence to utter simple contributions to the exchange. That might be off-putting to some, but it merely contributes to the quirks of Driver. He is always patient and kind to his neighbors, but a few outbursts throughout the story and his ability to spring into action at the drop of a hat hints at his capabilities. One scene in particular will make you think twice about trying to kill someone who is wearing a scorpion jacket in an elevator. You’ll see. There are a handful of violent acts that will test the limits of some squeamish types.

As you may have guessed, you don’t get to know much about Driver. He keeps everyone at a distance, including the audience. That’s fine. Silence only lets our imagination fill in what we think he has seen. Okay, so it’s a little tough to grasp the sudden bond between Driver and Irene. Oh well. It’s a catalyst for him to be dragged into a world that seeks him out, no matter how cautious and solitary he tries to be. Gosling definitively shows that he is capable of so much more than the romantic comedies he usually is shoehorned into (though ‘Lars and the Real Girl‘ was amazing).  The shift from heartthrob to badass is now complete. Also, what a strange, excellent turn from Albert Brooks!

Special features include: an interview with the Danish-born director Nicolas Refn, and four features known as ‘I Drive,’ ‘Under The Hood,’ ‘Driver and Irene,’ and ‘Cut To the Chase.’

So you might not like ‘Drive’ if you want it to be like ‘Fast and the Furious.’ It’s moody and meditative but also graphically violent and uncompromising. Unlike so many films whose story gets lost within dalliances with artiness or atmosphere, this keeps the narrative relatively simple yet challenges many conventions. The trick is to maintain the flourishes while not dropping the ball on the plot. Mission accomplished on both fronts.

Rated R          100 minutes           2011

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When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!

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