Buzzed about as it made the film festival rounds earlier this year, Drive finally speeds onto movie screens this week looking to make its mark on the cinema-going public. The thriller is certainly a gear-change for Ryan Gosling, last seen in romantic drama Blue Valentine, who stars as a mysterious, near-silent hero taking revenge on the Los Angeles mob.
Gosling plays a character known only as 'Driver', a Hollywood stunt performer by day who spends his evenings behind the wheel of getaway cars as criminals make off with their loot. A friendship with his apartment block neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) threatens to turn into a romance until her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) arrives back on the scene. Standard's criminal past catches up with him, and soon Drive transforms into explosive, ultra-violent entertainment.
The real heroes of the hour are Gosling and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (he of Bronson fame), who forge a cinematic partnership that's totally in sync. Gosling oozes cool as the toothpick-chewing protagonist, effortlessly blending softness and masculinity to draw empathy for a protagonist who's as psychotic as the gangster he's hunting down - Albert Brooks's Bernie Rose.
Refn's display of assured stylistic flair cements him as a filmmaker of immense talent and a worthy recipient of the Cannes 'Best Director' prize.
His tense car chases shun the flash-bang Michael Bay aesthetic in favour of Michael Mann-like precision, while tonal switches - from moments of heart-wrenching emotion to crimson-drenched violence - are staggeringly good. A scene in an elevator, where Gosling's Driver passionately kisses Irene before savagely beating a bad guy to death is breathtaking.
Drive's soundtrack, a mix of electro pop songs and Cliff Martinez's ambient score, also manages to pulse to the beat of its leading man. Gosling and Refn have both spoken of their fondness for the films of John Hughes and the '80s auteur's inspiration is quickly evident, from the electric pink opening titles font to the lush, synthy romanticism of College feat. Electric Youth's 'Real Hero', weaved into the film twice and acting as its signature song.
A delicious, scene-stealing turn from Brooks is the highlight among the supporting cast, but there's also excellent work from Bryan Cranston as Shannon, a mechanic who serves as a mentor figure to the Driver. Mad Men fans will also be in for a treat with Christina Hendricks, who plays a small but shockingly memorable role in the story.
Belying its formulaic Hollywood premise, Drive is a compelling and hugely entertaining thriller infused with moody Scandinavian spirit thanks to its director Refn. A story with grace, beauty and brutality, the outstanding Drive lingers long on the mind. Whisper it quietly, but this may just be the best movie of 2011.
> Drive: UK trailer, poster released
> Ryan Gosling's Drive: In Pictures
> Ryan Gosling, Nicolas Winding Refn "mentally f***ed" for Drive