Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pretty In Pink

I remember having a bit of a revelation watching James Cameron's 1994 film True Lies (which I saw again the other night), realizing for the first time that it was maybe possible to do James Bond better than, well, James Bond. Arnold Schwarzenegger was not exactly a carbon copy of Bond, but he felt like an evolution of the concept. And the idea of infusing great physical prowess and encyclopedic knowledge (in this case with the help of a wise-cracking sidekick) with a big dollop of humor made for a winning recipe (the wretched cheese of the Roger Moore era doesn't count). A few years later (2002) we got Doug Liman's take on Robert Ludlum's fictional hero Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity (a shame, I think, that Liman did not continue to direct the franchise). Not a True Lies clone by any means, and not quite a James Bond clone either, but a great variant on the theme: a super-competent killing machine infiltrating the most secretive halls of government and taking out the garbage.

I was led to think of these comparisons, variations-on-a-theme, if you will, after seeing Nicolas Winding Refn's new film Drive. Like about 95% of the rest of the folks who set foot in a theater, I naturally thought of Jason Statham's character in the series of Transporter films. But again the comparison only gets one so far before running out of steam. Still, it's a useful starting point, as most people seeing this film will have seen that one.

Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed character who has a knack for driving and makes his living putting this skill set to use in a variety of ways. He works part time for the film industry as a stunt driver and spends his off hours working for a friend at a garage fixing customer cars or working on his personal car. And, when the need arises, he offers his services to those with nefarious intent, but only according to a strict set of rules: he agrees to a five minute window where he is committed to whatever action is taking place, but outside that window he looks out for himself, mission be damned. This is an odd detail, and as it happens an incongruous one; it's like someone had this idea to build a character or film around and this is all that remains of the original concept. We witness several instances of the driver plying his skills in a variety of high and low settings, one of which puts him in close proximity to his lovely neighbor Irene (played by Carey Mulligan). Irene is living alone with her son in an apartment two doors down from the driver, and a series of recurring problems with her car put the two of them together long enough for a bond to develop.

But where Transporter director Louis Leterrier brings a touch of levity to Jason Statham's otherwise grim and taciturn character, Refn has pared all character development down to the bone. Gosling's driver remains fundamentally mysterious. He has almost no lines--his taciturnity is almost comical--we don't see him really doing much of anything. There is very little surface for the light of understanding to reflect off of. By this formula Refn and Gosling come up with a very film noir character, a misunderstood loner with no human attachments or material possessions who has difficulty fitting into the world.

Carey Mulligan's Irene is slow to warm to the driver, as she must necessarily be when interaction with him occurs almost without dialog. She lives in her little apartment with a young son, waiting for the boy's father (who may or may not be her husband) to get out of jail. She's lovely and very believable as an actress, though perhaps just a touch whitebread for this hardscrabble setting. The return of the boy's father stirs the pot nicely, and his character (played by Oscar Isaac) is written and played deftly clear of the bumpers of stereotype. The one unexpected detail with the driver's character is how he bonds with Irene's son: quietly, slowly; but it's there nonetheless.

Ryan Gosling has always struck me as a rather lightweight, TV-ish actor, but he pulls this role off nicely and the film is unexpectedly contained and satisfying. It has a low-budget feel, but in a good way. One jarring detail is the choice of having the credits roll past in pink cursive writing. For the life of me I can't figure out how that was deemed an inspired choice.

But it doesn't stand in the way of anything. A fine effort within the limits of its genre.

Grade: B


dbackdad said...

Thanks for the review. I was intrigued by all the hype about this movie because, on the surface, it appeared to be like, as you say, the Transporter film. For what it was, I actually liked that film. I didn't expect a lot but have always sorta liked Jason Statham. He has an impish humor to him (demonstrated well in Italian Job, Lock Stock ..., etc.).

Drive seems to be something that strives a little higher because of the high-quality talent involved and its commitment thematically. Regardless, based on your review, I'll give it a shot.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

Good review. I've been thinking about seeing this movie but hadn't decided yet. I love the Bourne films, never got into the Bond films. I saw Gosling in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" recently. Did a review on that and was quite impressed with his performance. I never really noticed him in any movie before that. So I'll be interested to see his delivery in this movie.

wunelle said...

I look forward to reviews and / or follow-up comments from both of you. I liked Gosling here, but maybe more because I didn't expect to. Still, he did a good job with a role that was challenging in its own way.