Drive (18)

This movie equates good dress sense with morality.

Drive (18) dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

If Drive were a car, it would be a gleaming, 500-horsepower Shelby Mustang with dust in the tank. Adapted from James Sallis's novel, it bears a striking resemblance to Walter Hill's The Driver, starring Ryan O'Neal as a nameless getaway man who lives to press the pedal to the floor. In Drive, it is the turn of another Ryan - Gosling, this time - to take the Loner Expressway to Existential Boulevard, where roadworks and tailbacks have no dominion. "What do you do?" someone asks him. "I drive," comes the Zen reply. His progress is unimpeded by the worries of less mystical road users. Not once does he appear to be debating whether to pull over now or see if his bladder can hold out until the next service station.

Gosling's character (also nameless) is a getaway driver whose life becomes endangered when his conscience enters his work. In his day job, safer by comparison, he is a professional stuntman. He performs crashes and car chases for the movies - in this movie full of crashes and car chases. If that's not enough self-reflexiveness for you, meet the gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a former producer of action films. "Critics called them European," shrugs Bernie. "I thought they were shit." The director Nicolas Winding Refn (Danish) and the writer Hossein Amini (Iranian but resident in Britain) must know that such self-congratulatory lines are best avoided unless you are sure you have a masterpiece on your hands.

Monastic heroes typically encounter their greatest challenge when they are required to commit but the driver happily becomes a companion to his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. Irene's husband is in prison. We suspect that he'll be out soon from the way in which Refn milks the driver's and Irene's getting-to-know-you montage. Music takes the place of small talk, so we never find out what it is they are giggling about on the banks of the Los Angeles River. Irene gazes at the driver. He gazes back. This isn't desire - it's editing.

Even in a film where all the characters are archetypes, Irene is an underwritten part. Her function is to bring purity into a cruel world, preferably while talking as infrequently as possible. Miscast to begin with, Mulligan is also misdirected almost continuously. Why is Irene smiling playfully at the driver when her husband, fresh out of jail, has caught them flirting? It can only be because she is a fool. And what is her expression supposed to suggest when she gawps at the driver after he has stamped repeatedly on a man's head? The film-makers clearly don't know, because they keep her off-screen for the next 20 minutes. When she gets another scene with the driver, it's as if the whole stomping-a-chap-to-death thing never happened. Dory, the amnesiac fish in Finding Nemo, has a firmer grasp on continuity.

Perhaps we shouldn't expect sanity from a film that equates morality with good dress sense. The driver, with his silver jacket and retro shades, is on the side of the angels. Irene's lipstick-red waitress uniform looks like Gaultier. The villains, however, need a make­over. One wears purple velour. Another considers a shell suit and silver chain acceptable. The femme fatale has a hoodie and a dye job. I ask you.

That Drive is constructed of celluloid references and fashion-shoot tableaux is, in itself, no bad thing: Hill's films faced the same accusations. But Hill also used flashes of the real world to throw fantasy into sharp relief, such as the abrasive detective played by Bruce Dern in The Driver, or the aching encounter between exhausted gang members and well-to-do partygoers on the subway in The Warriors.

Comparable signs of life are scarce in Drive. They emerge intermittently from Gosling, his melted eyes and womanly face so unlikely for an action hero, and from the heightened use of sound. The creak of leather gloves can compete here with a revving engine.

For a movie so dead, Drive has a thudding pulse - but only an aural one. It's there in Cliff Martinez's synthesiser score, as well as various chunky wedges of electronica, the most atmospheric being Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx's "Nightcall", with its growling android vocals that suggest RoboCop on Woodbines.