It’s been noted before that the irony of film noir was that it came from one of the sunniest places on earth – California. But while the original noir directors went to great lengths to mask the sunlit beauty of their surroundings, from the late ’60s another set of filmmakers took the staple elements of the genre – brooding heroes, gun-crazy villains, desperate dames – and brought them out into the light, making noir simultaneously more glossy, more vivid and, paradoxically, a whole lot colder.
The truly great ‘LA noir’ movies – ‘Point Blank’, ‘The Driver’, ‘Straight Time’, ‘To Live and Die in LA’, ‘Heat’ – share common characteristics beyond the basic clichés of the crime genre. These are movies informed by the city in which they were made, a city constructed of gleaming surfaces – six-lane highways, vast industrial wastelands and endless suburban sprawl – and a place where crime is grubby and small-time, carried out by empty, hopeless loners in hock to dapper despots with unpredictable personalities.
It’s in this world that we find the near-silent hero of ‘Drive’, Nicolas Winding Refn’s self-consciously slick, synth-scored throwback. Ryan Gosling plays the unnamed Driver, a mechanic and occasional getaway guy whose life is overturned when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), a struggling mum with a husband in the joint.
As all the above implies, this is a film built on familiarity, in terms of narrative and style: neon lights flash, rubber tyres screech, Gosling broods, Mulligan swoons and a trio of wisecracking, overdressed character actors – Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston – provide both levity and dramatic weight. But ‘Drive’ never drags: this is an entirely welcome riff on old material, a pulse-pounding, electronically enhanced cover version of a beloved standard. Sure, it’s shallow, but it’s also slickly compelling, beautifully crafted and so damn shiny.