For film reviewers wishing to write negative reviews there’s no shortage of source material. As a general rule of thumb my own reviews and film analysis are geared toward great movies, the logic being that by drawing attention to quality work I can encourage other film makers to improve their craft and audiences to up their tastes.
Here I’m going to break my “positive reviews only” rule for two reasons. 1) I watched Drive last night and, where as normally I would have left the cinema within 20 minutes of a film being low standard, I sat all the way through Drive on account of having asked my girlfriend to see it with me (she doesn’t walk out of films she starts). 2) The reason I went to watch Drive to begin with was due to the almost universal praise it has received – positive comparisons with classics such as Walter Hill’s The Driver and the Mad Max series, a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes etc.
What those reviews don’t explain is that Drive is a transparent commercial exercize in pasting together supposedly cool elements from other films, which it doesn’t even do a remotely good job of.
In 1978 Walter Hill released The Driver, a seemingly simple story of two cunning characters, a cop and a getaway driver, playing a hardball game of cat and mouse merely for the sport of it. The dialogue was extremely reductionist, but in a way that came off as intelligent rather than dumbed down. The Driver also showcased a series of high speed car chases and stunts, which later influenced the excellent Terminator. Embedded in the film was a subtle nod to the spaghetti westerns of Sergie Leone. The lead character is nameless, only speaks when he really needs to, hides his emotions behind a stone cold exterior and his only leisure activity that we witness is his playing of cowboy songs on a pocket sized radio.
The old argument of a film “ripping off” as opposed to being “inspired by” earlier classics can usually be settled by examination of what the new film brings to the table of its own design. Unlike it’s spaghetti western inspiration sources, the protagonist in The Driver doesn’t use guns. In fact the film makes intelligent plot use of his “never carry a gun” rule. Instead he uses cars as weapons, replacing the gun fight with a game of chicken against his adversaries. The film also did away with good guys and bad guys. all of its characters are “players”.
Four year’s later Mad Max 2 was hailed for it’s Leone and Kurosawa inspirations. Unlike The Driver, the Leone inspirations were evident visually, the characters rugged and dirty and the dusty settings scorched by the hot sun. Like The Driver, Mad Max 2 replaced guns and rifles with cars – delivering what many (including this reviewer) still hold up as the greatest car chase sequences of all time. Also, like The Driver, Mad Max 2 brought original elements of its own to the table. It was set in the future as opposed to its source inspirations being set in the past. It fused punk and biker imagery into its visuals in a way that would forever influence those genres. It contained a visual theme of humanity returning to an animal state. It even topped John Wayne’s final shot in The Searchers, the supposed “hero” fading into the landscape – lost in a no man’s land due to his fear of reconnecting with humans and his unwillingness to hand himself over to life with the savages. The Driver and Mad Max 2 are strong examples of films that take inspiration from earlier classics and combine them effectively with new ideas.
So what about 2011’s Drive? Well, I’ll get the positives (what few there are) out of the way first because the film does this itself in the first ten minutes. The opening introduces our getaway car driving protagonist as he helps a couple of hoods with a robbery. The scene tries to imitate the opening scenes of The Driver and the first two Mad Max films, except … there isn’t much action. Our “hero” outsmarts the police with careful bursts of acceleration and stints of quietly parking in the shadows. The scene works well in its own right.
At this point I was naively thinking “Ok, the action scenes in those other films were a little over the top, so maybe they’ve decided to go for a more intelligent and cunning protagonist with this film. That’ll mean less gratuitous violence and a well thought out plot.” Not a chance. As the rest of the film shows, its creators either lacked the courage or the budget to do a decent car chase scene. In a single minute of The Driver and Mad Max 2’s action scenes there’s more driving mayhem than in the entire 100 minutes of Drive.
Drive attempts to compensate for its lack of car chase action by importing scenes from gangster films like Goodfellas. Our “hero” stomps an assassins face in as if he’s Billy Batts from Goodfellas. A “bad guy” sticks a fork through a guy’s eyeball (not that that would actually work – eyeballs are very tough) then repeatedly knifes him in the throat … just like Billy Batts in Goodfellas.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Drive imports most of its “cool” elements from superior films, but those elements simply don’t work when plucked away from the originals. Why? Because unlike those classics, Drive lacks a central premise. There’s no purpose in this film other than to imitate. The film makers apparently thought that what made the lead characters seem intelligent in The Driver and Mad Max series was their lack of dialogue and their blank stares either at other characters or into the camera. And so this is what we get an abundance of with our lead in The Driver – prolonged expressionless stares and sparse dialogue. Ryan Gosling’s dialogue is so unbelievably basic that he comes off as an idiot, but it should be the henchmen of his opponents who are the idiots. He says nothing that indicates intelligence and there are no snappy put downs as we used to get from the likes of Clint Eastwood or Ryan O’neall in The Driver. With those characters there was always an impression that if they did let their guard down and talk they would be really interesting to listen to.
And the expressionless stares in Drive are too frequent and too long. Occasionally they’re broken with a cheesy smile, at which point what little tough guy credibility Gosling had built up goes out the window. Even the staring matches between Gosling and the young boy he’s trying to protect are lifted from Mad Max 2 with a complete lack of awareness of context. The young boy who befriended Max was speechless for the entire film. He had been raised in a land of savages. It is only revealed to us in the boy’s adult voice over at the end of the film he could talk. In Mad Max 2 there were approx three, maybe four, shots of the boy and Max staring at each other as kindred loners … and they never really connect because Max abandons him at the end. But regardless of these simple character and plot elements Drive imports the tough guy versus kid staring competitions and hits us with them too many times and for too long. They especially don’t work because the kid is a normal healthy boy.
The film makers overlooked the simple factor that made Mad Max and The Driver “cool” characters. They acted intelligently. They may have had emotional hang ups, but when it comes to taking on bad guys they’re cunning and prepared. Our “hero” in Drive walks or drives head on, like an idiot, into dangerous situations where the danger could be seen a mile away. An example of how this kind of intelligent action should be done is when Ryan O’neall’s character in The Driver is set up by a crook. The crook is aware of the driver’s reputation of “never carrying a gun” and is planning to kill him. The driver, being aware of his opponents perceptual blind spot, breaks his own rule by carrying a gun and catching him off guard. Or how about Mad Max, who uses his car as a trap by having a dog trained to attack anyone who touches it, and as a back up has planted a bomb near the fuel tank. When he is captured by a would be thief he announces the existence of the bomb. Naturally his captor tells him to switch the bomb off. Anticipating the possibility Max has a knife hidden under the car to take his captor out. It’s this anticipation of enemies and smart planning that makes Max, The Driver or Dirty Harry come off as “cool”. The cold stares and sparse dialogue don’t work without it. Another film full of such examples of intelligent characters playing convincing and complex games of chess with each other is Scorsese’s The Departed, which is infinitely smarter than Drive.
Shall I go on with this review? … Yes, I’m afraid I must as a catharsis after 100 minutes of utter boredom.
The shallowness in Drive goes on. Our “hero” marches into a dressing room to attack one of his enemies with a hammer. It’s a nice excuse to show a dozen or so pairs of breasts, many of them fake, much like the film’s pretence. Despite the violence from our “hero”, several of the girls hang around to watch, which conveniently allows us to watch their breasts for lack of anything else interesting in the scene. Our “hero” threatens to hammer a bullet into the forehead of his scumbag opponent. Is that actually possible? He lifts the hammer back over his shoulder, at which point I had a vision of him slamming down, missing the bullet and breaking his fingers. Seriously, the film is that badly thought out.
What else? Oh, there was a moderately interesting sideline story. The “love interest” is a neighbour whose boyfriend is released from prison. To its credit the film doesn’t turn the boyfriend into a girlfriend beating demon so as to justify a little mindless violence from our “hero”. The guy genuinely wants to get on the straight and narrow, but is being harassed by gangster associates to pay debts. Our “hero” tries to help him out. At this point the story was moderately interesting, but our “hero” gets the guy killed in a pathetic attempt to help him pull a heist – thus killing the interesting subplot too. Now our “hero” is free to express his love interest in his neighbor without stepping on the turf of a husband and father who was trying to make it up to his family.
Even with a seasoned action star in the lead role Drive would be an awful film, but it’s even worse for the fact that Gosling is not a convincing action hero. He’s got muscle, but he’s far too boyish in the face for this kind of role. His version of the tough guy stare is more akin to the timid Cameron character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
After watching Drive I just had to go back online and double check all the rave reviews to make sure I hadn’t dreamt them. Yes, they’re there. 8.6 rating on IMDB, 93% on rotten tomatoes. Apparently the film got a standing ovation at Cannes. It got a 5 star review in The Independent and a 4 star review in The Guardian. What is going on here? Have these people ever watched the classic films Drive lifted it’s cut and paste ideas from? Or has the market become so saturated with garbage that this half-baked effort actually seems good by comparison?
I’ve also been reading quite a bit about Drive being stylish. Well, that’s true if you like meaningless MTV pop videos. Excessive slow motion, depth of field and long supposedly meaningful stares aren’t style. They’re today’s fads ported in from tv commercial aesthetics. At least Drive didn’t use excessive shaky hand held camera movements to try and make us think “Woah, it’s like I’m really there man!”
My last critique, for now, of Drive is its cheesy soundtrack. Totally unfitting for this type of film.
For anyone out there who thinks I’m being snobbish with this review, please be aware that I enjoy a lot of dumbed down action films. In my DVD collection I have copies of everything from Rambo and Predator to Citizen Kane and I love them all for different reasons. Hell, I’ve even got copies of the old Sho Kozugi ninja flicks. What I won’t have in my collection is films that pretend to be something that they’re not. I can honestly say that Drive ranks in my worst cinematic disappointments of all time, alongside Armageddon and Hannibal.
After near tearing my hair out while watching Drive, I’m tempted to go back to my old strategy of deciding which new films to see. Ignore the hype when a film is released and if people are still talking about it 18 months later then it’s probably worth seeing.
End of rant.