Opening with a suspenseful car chase, Drive may at first seem to be your typical fast-driving, muscle-car movie. But as soon as the opening credits roll (in a florid, hot pink font) to the tune of an ’80s-inspired electro-pop song, it becomes clear that the drama, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is not your average action flick.

Starring Ryan Gosling, the film has some noir elements — a Los Angeles setting, crooked mob men, stylized violence, a buxom femme fatale (played by an overly made-up Christina Hendricks) and a sweet girl next door (literally, Carey Mulligan lives next door to Gosling) who becomes entangled in the world of crime. Such a combination could easily become tiring, but Refn’s unique cinematography gives the film a glossy veneer, transforming the action movie into something more artistic and thoughtful.

In the fashion of a modern-day noir, Gosling is neither good nor bad. Nameless throughout the film, his character is referred to simply as “the driver,” adding to the mystery of the handsomely droopy-faced loner. He works as a stunt driver in Hollywood by day and a get-away car driver for whichever criminal calls him by night.

Driver’s character is a study of subtlety. His face barely registers the impending violence around him, save an implacable sadness behind his eyes.

When he meets Irene (Mulligan), his vaguely pretty neighbor, his life begins to brighten a bit. You could easily get lost in the dreamy montage of their drive around the valley on a lazy Sunday, with Irene’s son Benicio in her lap. At one point Irene places her hand on his, and the sexual tension is quietly electric. But Driver and Irene don’t progress very far into their budding relationship, because Benicio’s father and Irene’s absent husband, Standard, is released from jail.

With Standard back in the picture, Driver and Irene “brake” off their nascent relationship. Although Standard claims to have left his old life behind him, his criminal past follows him, and Driver steps into the fray. From this point on, the film departs from the sunny, relationship-based plotline, both in story and style.

Here Refn shows his darker side, channeling Tarantino with blood-soaked scenes, but all characteristically set to Cliff Martinez’s score featuring artists such as CSS’s Lovefoxxx and The Chromatics. The juxtaposition of dark scenes and lighthearted pop is strangely grotesque, yet poetic.

The second half of the film follows this new artistic formula as the plotline becomes more sinuous. Mob wars and double-crossing ensnare all the characters. Driver becomes relentless in his quest to protect Irene from Standard and soon becomes a target himself. And he does this all for a relationship with Irene, which culminates in only a single kiss — something revealed in the 30-second trailer.

While the stylized violence practically borders on the absurd, and the mob war storyline has been done before, the film redeems itself with Refn’s romantic cinematography. The seamy glitter of Los Angeles perfectly underscores the gorgeous violence.

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