DRIVE 

Heist movies have become increasingly tired and rote, yet with Drive Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn gets plenty of stylized mileage out of a reinvented wheel. Loosely adapted from James Sallis’ novella by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Hossein Amini, it’s an instant cult classic.

Ryan Gosling stars as Driver (like many a movie gunfighter and samurai, his true name is never revealed), a tight-lipped, locked-down young man who works as a mechanic and part-time stunt driver for cheap action flicks by day, and as a getaway driver-for-hire by night. His agent/boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a loser with big dreams but little means, sees him as a meal ticket and linchpin in his latest business scheme.

At the same time, Driver falls into the orbit of Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young single mother living in the apartment next door. The budding romance is abruptly cut short when husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison early. Driver fades from their life out of respect, only to be sucked back in when Standard begs his help with robbing a pawn shop in order to pay off a protection racket.

Of course it all goes south; people die, mobsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, the latter of whom gives a fantastic performance that goes against the grain of his usual sad sack characters) demand blood, and Driver is caught in the middle of double- and triple-crosses in true film noir fashion.

Like the ethos found in spaghetti Westerns and most martial arts films, Gosling’s wheelman operates under a strict code of personal conduct, albeit one that is illustrated by his deeds, never openly espoused. The character arguably owes much to the getaway driver played by Ryan O’Neal in Walter Hill’s similar 1978 neo-noir The Driver, and is the kind of emotionally cool, calculated role that most actors would give up a body part to play, and Gosling wrings all he can from it.

Reminiscent of late-’70s/early-’80s actioners a la Michael Mann, Walter Hill, and William Friedkin (a nice touch in that many of Driver’s stunt gigs appear to be for similar pictures). Amini wisely takes a cue from Sallis in realizing that the true appeal here isn’t in the story but in the way it’s told, and Winding Refn deftly follows suit with a European sense of pacing that is punctuated by sudden outbursts of shocking violence.

 

STRAW DOGS 

The latest in Hollywood’s incredibly long line of pointless, unnecessary remakes, Straw Dogs is a hollow, superficial film that that trades moral ambiguity for cheap sensationalism. Granted, director Sam Peckinpah’s version (based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams) was a savage male fantasy of misogyny and macho empowerment that left the viewer feeling a little dirty after the end credits rolled, it at least challenged our moral sensibilities (uber-critic Pauline Kael once described it as a “the first American film that is a fascist work of art”), writer and director Rod Lurie’s compromised reinterpretation is hollow and empty, leaving very little impression after the adrenaline wears off.

The original starred Dustin Hoffman as a timid mathematician David Sumner and Susan George as his tarty wife Amy who relocate to a farmhouse in rural England, where escalating differences with the locals and the sexual assault of Amy lead to a violent confrontation in the final reel give the impression of David finding his manhood and redemption through a bit of the old ultra-violence.

Lurie updates the script by making David (James Marsden) a Hollywood screenwriter (math geeks are too cool to look down upon thanks to The Big Bang Theory, while West Coast liberals are still prized fodder), Amy (Kate Bosworth) an actress returning to her small-town home after hitting the big-time, and by substituting rural Mississippi for Cornwall. This produces instant (and obvious) story conflict and, to his credit, Lurie at least tries to work in a little social commentary that unfortunately is under-served.
 
Marsden and Bosworth do surprisingly with a script that leaves them hanging in the wind with one-note characters. Alexander Skarsgard likewise rises above the material as Amy’s ex-boyfriend and leader of the local bad boys, though his slide from obsessive ex to complete bastard is a tad jarring. James Woods chews the scenery from start to finish as a bullying ex-high school football coach who seems to have been imported from a community theater version of Varsity Blues.

Peckinpah’s film was really a look at the limits of pacifism, one that found profundity by being made during the height of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and the turmoil of the civil rights movement, and it was released after the boundary-pushing Bonnie and Clyde and within the same year as The French Connection and A Clockwork Orange. Though Lurie’s version comes post-9/11 (perhaps a little too late), it also comes at a time when violence in movies has risen to such a level that it is no longer shocking. This sort of rumination almost seems quaint, and it plays like little more than a cheap thriller about a home invasion.

The biggest disconnect with Lurie’s interpretation is that there is no real question of who’s right and who’s wrong. The remake has been sanitized for mass consumption, and those decisions have been made for us. David is a more acceptable cuckold, an uptight intellectual with pretty-boy looks; Amy is no longer a spoiled tease who gets in over her head; the bullies are now oafish redneck caricatures; and the inevitable confrontation is less tragically absurd and more justifiable. The result is like bad sex — one long teasing build-up punctuated by a brief, loud, unsatisfying climax.