Review: Right Turns and Wrong Turns Make ‘Drive’ Go in Circles

There’s a sleek machine in here somewhere, but director Nicholas Winding Refn has buried it in optional extras

There’s a sleek, pulse-pounding, heart-racing machine in “Drive,” but it’s buried deeply under an oppressive package of optional extras. For all of its good ideas — and there are plenty of them — the film eventually buckles under an excess of style.

Ryan Gosling stars as the film’s never-named protagonist (shades of the similarly nameless heroes of “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “The Driver”), who works by day as a mechanic and occasional Hollywood stunt driver, and sometimes by night as a fast and furious getway-car driver for thieves.

His boss in all of these pursuits is the limping Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who himself lives under the thumb of mobster brothers Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) — Bernie may be “the nice one” compared to the sadistic Nino, but both siblings are bad news.

Bernie fronts Shannon the money to buy a stock car and put “the Kid” (as Bernie calls Gosling’s character) on the racing circuit, but this is a movie about petty criminals looking to improve their lot in life, and on screen, that never goes well.

The Kid has become smitten with Irene (Carey Mulligan), who lives down the hall with her young son, but when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes home from prison, the ex-con gets blackmailed into robbing a pawn shop to cover protection money he owes from his time behind bars. The Kid offers to drive the getaway car for Standard so that he — and more importantly to the Kid, Irene and her son — can be free of any further threats.

But all roads lead back to Nino, which means that no one is safe.

Director Nicholas Winding Refn has made a name for himself in international cinema with the “Pusher” trilogy, “Bronson,” and “Valhalla Rising,” movies that combine a bold, visionary style with an unrepentant exploration of masculine violence. And while “Drive” very much fits into that category — we see the Kid’s darker impulses become more manifest as the plot unfolds — Refn allows his eye for stylishness to overwhelm the proceedings.

He’s clearly shooting for a Michael Mann vibe, with the black-lacquer sheen of L.A. by night and the thumpa-thumpa Vangelis-meets-Tangerine-Dream score by Cliff Martinez. (Even the satin jacket favored by the Kid and the hot pink VHS-era font on the titles would have looked right at home on old episodes of “Miami Vice." That the filmmakers didn’t throw in The Cars’ 1984 hit single “Drive” as well is one of the movie’s few examples of restraint.)

But the art direction winds up being too much; in its own way, “Drive” is as aesthetically over the top as Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.”

That’s a shame, because there’s a lot to admire here, from the movie’s amped-up chase scenes to a charismatically monstrous performance by Albert Brooks that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen from the comedy veteran. Brooks’ comic on-screen persona, from his own movies to his unforgettable role in “Broadcast News,” have always been id-based, but here he dishes out an even darker side that allows him to pretty much steal the movie in just a handful of scenes.

Also making the most out of a small role is Christina Hendricks, who turns in her sexpot “Mad Men” outfits for some wildly unflattering and trashy ensembles. Attractive actresses often get too much credit when they’re willing to ugly themselves up, but Hendricks completely buries herself into the character — she’s not just sacrificing vanity but also allowing the role to take over.

Gosling flourishes most when he’s holding back his emotions — or in rare moments, lashing out with brutality — but his relationship with Irene never feels fully-formed, limited as it is to a series of gooey smiles the two exchange.

And while no one’s going to see “Drive” for the love story, we’re supposed to believe that it’s the Kid’s feelings for Irene that brings him out of his shell and puts him into conflict with some very bad folks, so the romance represents a major plot point even if the film never treats it that way.

“Drive” is the sort of movie that will forever more turn up on lists of “Iconic Films About Los Angeles” and “Best Car Chases,” but it’s a pity that its best parts are so often undercut by miscalculations from the talented Refn, who directs like a man confidently and assuredly taking a left turn into a pond and insisting that he’s forging his own path.