Revving engines, blasting shotguns and cries of agony are the kinds of sounds you’d expect to hear in the average action movie, but the combination of these elements doesn’t always amount to something emotional. The art house actioner Drive proves you can be a tough, hard-nosed hero and still be a sensitive guy of the strong, silent persuasion.

The best driver (Ryan Gosling) in Los Angeles has a few rules about his process as a wheelman. He’ll assist in any heist, robbery, or other such activity as long as his price is met and the job is done within the time-frame of five minutes. Provided those conditions are fulfilled, he can guarantee a clean getaway, and not leave a trail back to his accomplices. As a result of his line of work, he lives a very secluded and detached life, but that all changes when he meets young mother Irene (Carey Mulligan), who needs a man around the house with a husband (Oscar Isaac) in prison. While the driver gets more involved in Irene’s life, he feels compelled to help out her newly released spouse, who owes a favor to some bad people. But what should be a simple plan to make things even quickly goes awry, and the driver must pump the brakes in order to set the situation right.

Playing a character that never receives a name, Gosling emits an aura of complete mystery as a man who rarely utters a word, but never fails to put the pedal to the metal when it counts. His skill in the driver’s seat is put to good use as both a stuntman and a potential race car competitor, yet most of the action takes place without any automobiles involved.

Bryan Cranston is fine as Gosling’s mentor, Shannon, a specialty mechanic who provides the young hero with his vehicles and tries to arrange bigger things for the skilled motorist. In this case, chasing after big dreams involves crossing paths with scary folks, such as Ron Perlman as mobster Nino and an atypically psychotic Albert Brooks as his associate Bernie. Mulligan balances the amount of malice as sweet-natured Irene, caught between her love for her husband and son (Kaden Leos) and the excitement of her attraction to the driver. Isaac’s appearance as her hubby is pretty brief, but that’s nothing compared to Christina Hendricks in a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role” as Blanche, who seems to be a femme fatale until we see what fate has in store for her.

There’s some serious brutality that gets more and more intense as the story goes on in Hossein Amini’s adaptation of James Sallis’s novel, embracing the philosophy that less is more, whether you’re talking about dialogue or background music. Cliff Martinez’s faux 1980s score gives the movie a very dreamy feel, especially with a soundtrack featuring the likes of Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx’s “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” by College featuring Electric Youth. The driver’s trademark jacket — white satin with a gold scorpion on the back — puts him further out of place and makes him seem almost superhuman compared to mere mortals. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Best Director win at the Cannes Film Festival is well-deserved with all these touches, alluding to older but more solid action films of the ’60s and ’70s, and doing well in that regard.

The plot of Drive may be simpler than other types that have been released lately, and that may be its greatest strength. The “Man with No Name” gimmick may have been used in the Dwayne Johnson flop Faster, and the fifth entry in the Fast and the Furious series may have ruled the highway over the summer, but Refn’s film leaves both in the dust.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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