“Drive” channels Scorsese, Mann for suspenseful genre thrills – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: For me, the worst part about Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” is that once it’s over, I’ll never be able to see it for the first time again.

Make no mistake, I plan to see it again. But I’ll know what happens to Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver and the vulnerable single mother in whom he takes an interest (Carey Mulligan). I’ll know what happens to Gosling’s literal partner-in-crime, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who hatches an incomplete plan for the two men to finally go clean. I’ll know what happens with menacing gangsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, mesmerizing) and his lunkhead brother, Nino (Ron Perlman). And I’ll know the purpose of that muscle car with the tinted windows parked outside the pawn shop … and the absolute hell it is going to unleash on this tight-knit band of outcasts.

Because during “Drive,” I had no idea what was going to happen next. No clue. And the thrill of Refn’s suspenseful genre exercise is finding out how long you can remain in your seat before creeping to the edge – clichéd as that may sound – just wishing that what is about to unfold on screen somehow doesn’t.

A tweet I read right before catching “Drive” described Refn’s foreboding thriller as “the best film Michael Mann never made.” I wish I could remember who wrote it because it’s pretty spot-on, and if you’re enamored with the glossy yet seedy underbelly of Mann’s “Heat,” “Collateral” or even “Miami Vice,” you’ll appreciate the comparison.

I think the director’s inspirations reach back even further, aspiring to (and often mirroring) early Scorsese with unapologetically jarring violence conducted by characters who swim in a murky pool of morality. But like Scorsese, Refn understands how and when to smoothly move his camera through manufactured chaos, keep an unflinching eye on some disturbing acts of cruelty. Refn’s use of signature tune also enhances his mood. The “Drive” soundtrack will end up on your iTunes shortly after you’ve screened the film.

In many ways, “Drive” is California’s answer to Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” or “Taxi Driver,” with Gosling’s silent wheelman-for-hire standing in for a frustrated Travis Bickle. Refn’s film creates a quicksand plot that, with each passing minute, pulls its characters deeper and deeper into a sinking black hole of corruption and deceit. But this genre film does what it does so well, and with such impressive directorial finesse, you won’t mind stepping into the criminal muck and covering yourself in the blood and filth of some ice-cold thieves. Particularly Brooks, who has to be the film’s strongest Oscar play. The razor-sharp comedian is engrossing every minute he spends on screen. He’s like a flashlight ignited in a pitch-dark room. It’s impossible not to stare directly at him once he’s on.

So see “Drive” for the first time, when all of its surprises remain up Refn’s sleeve. Because the film, to be honest, can’t get much better than that.

Grade: ***1/2 out of four stars

“Drive” screened as part of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on Sept. 16.

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