By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

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In a movie, coolness is one thing, but self-conscious coolness looks a lot like pretentiousness:  it’s the cinematic equivalent of the high school kid who wants so badly to be seen as cool, he usually acts the fool.

Which transports us to Drive, an ultra-violent crime drama that may not be bloody awful but is awful bloody.

Ryan Gosling stars as an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver (we’ll call him “Driver”) and mechanic by day who moonlights as a Los Angeles getaway driver — not a participant in the crimes that his passengers are or are not committing, just their highly skilled, high-speed chauffeur at the wheel of a custom-modified getaway vehicle.

Self-contained wheel-man Driver is a loner who rarely speaks, never seems to even change his clothes, doesn’t carry a weapon, and contains his lethal gifts until he’s forced into a corner.  He’s portrayed as a perversely honorable man, a seemingly amoral guy who would seem to live by a code of behavior that he will not compromise.

When he befriends a next-door neighbor played by Carey Mulligan and her young son, and finds himself drawn to her, he holds back, realizing that she has a husband (Oscar Isaac) who is in jail.

But when the ex-con turns up, Driver agrees, for a fuzzy variety of reasons, to pull a job with him and his cronies.

Big mistake.

Driver soon senses that he’s a manipulated pawn in a murderous chess game. And when a pawnshop heist in the San Fernando Valley goes very, very wrong, a contract is put out on him.

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He soon realizes that he’ll need to shift into a much higher action gear to exact revenge while (well, what d’ya know!) protecting the people he cares about.

The supporting cast includes Bryan Cranston as Driver’s agent and mechanic boss; Albert Brooks, cast against type as Bernie Rose, a cold-blooded gangster who used to produce movies; Ron Perlman as a pizzeria-owning hood and Bernie’s partner in crimes; and Christina Hendricks as a distracting, small-time gun moll.

Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling has long since demonstrated his versatility, performing admirably in drama (Half Nelson, The Believer), suspense (Fracture, All Good Things), mystery (Murder by Numbers, Stay), romance (The Notebook, Blue Valentine), and even comedy (Lars and the Real Girl; Crazy, Stupid, Love).

This time out Gosling becomes an action star as he attempts to exude coolness in a manner not unlike early Clint Eastwood (especially as The Man with No Name in his spaghetti-western trilogy) or Steve McQueen (especially in Bullitt).

But the impressive and underemployed Gosling is asked to do a lot more driving than acting.  This laconic-leading-man gig doesn’t exactly engage his acting chops, but it probably does underscore the inevitability of his ascension to movie superstardom.

Still, it seems like slumming for an actor of his caliber.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) certainly includes his fair share of demolition-derby car chases, as you would expect — and they’re smartly choreographed at that — but he also has his film periodically burst into sudden spasms of violence so graphically brutal, so cartoonishly vicious, that you get the feeling that the rest of the film merely serves as an excuse for him to indulge his taste for gore.

And the carnage steals the thunder of the car-nage.

The screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the 2005 novel of the same name by James Sallis, offers threadbare characters who exhibit arbitrary behaviors that serve the plot and Refn’s generic directorial proclivities without coming anywhere near a third dimension of character delineation.  That is, no one ever seems even momentarily real.

So we’ll accelerate 2 stars out of 4 for a high-octane but low-impact action thriller.  Commonsense advice:  if graphic violence drives you crazy, don’t drink in Drive.

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