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Full throttle 

The L.A. noir would be a stunner if not for all the gore.

'DRIVE': Ryan Gosling stars.
  • 'DRIVE': Ryan Gosling stars.

There's a moment about halfway through "Drive" when it turns from a beautiful piece of modern Los Angeles noir — as slick as it is dark, as predatory as it is patient — to an overindulgent bloodbath. In that instant, a particular character goes from having a head to having it blown apart by a shotgun blast, splattered PlayStation-style. At that point in the packed theater in which I watched "Drive," enraptured, a large fraction of the audience burst out laughing, mostly out of shock. From then on, the violent moments of "Drive" were nearly all luridly graphic. It's a shame, actually, because for a while there director Nicolas Winding Refn had a movie you couldn't take your eyes off of. Then he decided instead to fashion a film that makes his audience squint, turn and groan.

Anyway, that's your fair warning. On balance, "Drive" is a marvelous, compelling and mature movie that spins an immersive tale from a simple story. The usual old thing: A stuntman (Ryan Gosling, surprisingly wearing a shirt throughout) moonlights as a getaway driver for hire, unarmed and inscrutable but a demon on the freeway. His other day job is working as a mechanic at a garage owned by a grizzled, aging small-timer named Shannon (Bryan Cranston, looking both broken and bad) who has dreams of putting our driver behind the wheel of a stock car. Financing this means reaching out to a mobbed-up financier named Bernie (Albert Brooks, convincingly). This does not set a good precedent. Meanwhile our driver has been spending a great deal of quality time with his comely neighbor (a quietly enchanting Carey Mulligan) and her son; but when her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns from prison with a debt to pay, the driver offers his services as, well, what else?

The road sequences are only the beginning of the aesthetic pleasures of "Drive." Gosling's lines could be contained legibly on the back of a single sun visor; he seems always to be driving stoically with blurs of ambient neon and stoplights and dash readouts illuminating his face. Even indoors, light seems to leak into every room and corner, colors bleeding in from the city, which sparkles gold-on-black in the aerial shots that punctuate the gaps between scenes. The soundtrack, composed largely by Cliff Martinez, the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer, is spectacularly evocative, a synthy, glossy, pulsing neo-'80s tour de force that, like the hot-pink cursive font of the title screen, declares that the top is down and the night is warm and no one has anywhere to be except putting miles in the rear view. Whoever painted the look and sound of this film knows the brimming heart that comes with having a loud stereo and a full tank of gas.

Except it's all more sinister than that. (Go YouTube the Chromatics' "Tick of the Clock" for a taste.) Scratch the shimmer and you get the whiff of doom at every turn. The driver, sans name, might as well be a rider in an old Western, a man without a past, without a future, with only a tense and dangerous present. He presses ahead when the smart thing, the self-interested thing, would be to turn around, to take his winnings and leave the table. But we know this character. He doesn't say much. He faces perils thinking only of others. He's bound for a hard place. "Drive" has the archetype, the look, the sound, the cast and the story for a terrific movie. All the more reason why it should've known when to throttle back, if even slightly.

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