Drive (2011)

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A prized Overcat

With the highly anticipated fall release date of Grand Theft Auto V fast approaching the gaming universe, I couldn’t help getting into the zeitgeist by accessing a friends Netflix account and throwing on the decorated 2011 film, Drive.

For all the fans of the Grand Theft Auto series out there, Drive is honestly the closest thing you will get to a film adaptation of the game devoid of Rockstar Games giving authorization to make such a film. Sadly, the film wasn’t an official adaptation of the series in any way shape or form; however, it indirectly pays homage to the GTA series in a variety of ways.

If the Houser Brothers of Rockstar Games, the creative team behind the legendary (or infamous depending on how prude you are) Grand Theft Auto series, relented and authorized a film adaptation of the GTA series to be produced, and if they somehow maintained enough control over the development to insert some artistic fortitude into it and make it more than yet another Hollywood cash-in on a popular video game franchise, Drive might have been the result.

Overview:

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
 Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
Genre: Crime, Drama

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The film takes place in Los Angeles (like most of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and upcoming GTA V), has hot pink opening titles and uses synthesizer-heavy 1980′s dance club music (a la Grand Theft Auto: Vice City), for the first half of the film, and has an almost totally silent protagonist who gets involved with people in the lower end of organized crime (similar to Claude in Grand Theft Auto III).

Drive, as mentioned previously, is not derived from the video game series (Sorry, nobody randomly fires a RPG-7 into a crowded intersection at any point during the film), but from a novel of the same name written by James Sallis and adapted for the screen by Hossein Amini (whose preceding work includes costume dramas such as The Wings of the Dove and The Four Feathers). The film and the novel follow the exploits of Driver, a mechanic/Hollywood stunt driver who also works on the side as the getaway driver for criminals looking to pull heists.

Although Driver prides himself on his professionalism, he keeps his own council, holding would-be companions at arm’s length, until one day when he happens to initiate a friendship with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Bencio (Kaden Leos). Driver quickly falls in love with them both, and regardless of the potential for contention, when Irene’s husband and Bencio’s father, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes back into the family scene after being released from incarceration, Driver, in order to shield Irene and Bencio from harm, helps Standard pull a job so he can finance an outstanding debt he owes to some gangsters. Things go horribly wrong during the job and ends up complicating matters to the point where it puts Driver’s boss and confidant Shannon (Bryan Cranston) in a bad position with some Los Angeles Jewish gangsters, Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks).

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The plot line is straightforward enough and recognizable to anyone with adequate exposure to the “solo gunslinger with a vengeance” action genre that actors like Clint Eastwood build their careers on. In fact, Amini and director Nicholas Windng Refn strip this narrative to its most bare bone essentials, forgoing almost all character development.

We don’t know much about these characters and we’re not really supposed to ask, just as the characters don’t seem to ask each other. Refn as an alternative opts to use archetypes: the loner hero, the mobster villains, the love interest, and that’s about as in depth as it goes. Even the bonding sequence between Driver, Irene, and Bencio is done in a quick montage sequence that seems to be Refn’s way of saying, “There you go audience, now they love each other. Now let’s move on”. This way of handling the story I thought was unique, interesting, and definitely worked well with the flow and pace to which the film progressed in.

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This bare bones structure approach is taken by Refn because more than anything, his primary concern appears to be the elements that make up the action genre, and in a lot of ways, deconstructing the genre and purging it of its awkward superfluous “serious” moments is a good thing. In your typical action flick, the serious dramatic scenes meant to make us care about the characters and their decisions all too often only serve to emphasize the weakness of the plot, so trimming the fat off the genre is an inspired choice in this day age when the operative word for action films is: overstuffed. Drive and the way it looks is raw, and when the serious action/violence appears it is that much more intense/shocking to see since they are not splashed all over the film in extravagance and fanfare.

On the technical side, the film relies on an overabundance of close-ups. Putting the camera close enough on a man’s face to see the roots of his stubble seems to be the fashionable thing to do these days. The idea behind it is that being right in someone’s face ramps up the intensity of the film. This technique is also reminiscent of and used throughout many of Grand Theft Auto’s cut scenes and dialogue sequences between characters in the games. Between the films’ and GTA’s use of space in the hotel room scenes, and two apartment scenes (all locations that could only exist in Los Angeles or some derivative universe of Los Angeles), it’s clear that both worlds really stick out in your mind as being purely LA.

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The film’s cast all serve their function, most with significant assurance, but as anyone who has seen the movie will tell you, the standout performance of the film comes from Albert Brooks. Brooks’ Bernie Rose character is one of the most realistic gangsters portrayed in modern day film. Rose is not chiefly enamored with his status as a “criminal” on the “fringe” of society and all the allure that comes with it, as an alternative he chooses to view his operations much as a stockbroker views his investments. He doesn’t celebrate in the violence necessary for his type of business, but he isn’t troubled to use it either. In other words, he’s one ice-cold son of a bitch, and Brooks plays him so to chilling effect. The only let down of Brooks’ performance is his lack of screen time.

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Brooks’ lustre shouldn’t eclipse some of the other fine performances though. Both Ron Perlman, as Rose’s relatively impulsive partner in crime Nino, and Bryan Cranston, as Driver’s ill-fated mentor Shannon, all pull through in a big way in filling out the world of Drive. Oscar Isaac, as a common petty Mexican gangster, playing the complex role of rival/comrade to Driver, also adds strength and depth to what easily could have been a very flat character. Ryan Gosling, putting his spin on the “strong but silent” male protagonist, does a convincing job as the reluctant hero.

In closing, this film is simply stunning, and a work of art. The respect it gives to writing, acting and the way in which it handles violence is top notch. If they ever make an official Hollywood adaptation of the Grand Theft Auto series, I am almost afraid to think and say that it may not be able to live up to how this film indirectly captured its essence. But who knows, surprises happen every day.

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