Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Driver

In 1978, when he made The Driver, Walter Hill was at the beginning of an incredible run of motion pictures. The next year, he was listed as a producer on Alien, a film he'd at one time hoped to direct himself, and to which he provided invaluable creative input by the admission of the film's eventual creative team. He'd also direct the urban dystopia classic The Warriors in 1979. Then came The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hours and Streets of Fire. Not a bad run.

You can see a lot of the themes that would play out in later Hill movies in The Driver, a taut action film centered around a series of intense car chases. Many of Hill's films borrow elements of the Western and insert them into urban crime films, and The Driver is no different. We follow a criminal as he's hunted relentlessly by a bad cop, and their cat-and-mouse game (and eventual stand-off) mirrors the dramatic clashes of personalities of the Old West.

Appropriately enough, our hero is a Man With No Name, known only as The Driver. He's played by Ryan O'Neal at his most deadpan, and Ryan O'Neal is about as deadpan as they come. The character's purposefully flat and emotionless, understanding as he does that emotional responses get you caught, whereas cool heads have a shot at getting away. The Driver works as a freelance getaway driver. For $10,000 and 15% of the net profits, he'll get you the hell out of Dodge. And as we see during a daring opening bank robbery, he's good at his job.

That robbery goes haywire, arousing the interest of a self-delusional, ego-maniacal headcase of a cop, known only as The Detective (Bruce Dern). This kind of character was Dern's bread-and-butter in the 70's, a half-insane, amoral whackjob abusing a position of authority. It worked terrifically in The Laughing Policeman, it's highly amusing in The Trip, but Dern really outdoes himself here. His Detective sees himself not as a cop but as a crusader. "I'm going to catch the cowboy who's never been caught," he announces early on, and he seemingly has no doubt the prophecy will come true. Dern sells the role like a true believer. It's one of his most entertaining performances.

The movie has some standard twists and turns, including The Detective's particularly devious plan to pull off a bank robbery as a sting operation. The final act actually gets a bit confusing, with The Detective, the robbers he's cajoled into setting up his fake robbery, The Driver and The Driver's new lady accomplice (Isabelle Adjani, billed as The Player) all vying for the same suitcase filled with $200,000.

But really, it's not the complicated, noirish story that's the focus but the exceptional, high-wire car chases through downtown Los Angeles. One sequence in particular, in which The Driver evades up to 4 cop cars at a time, reminded me of the inky night photography of Michael Mann's Collateral from last year. These are expertly-filmed and paced action scenes with a level of clarity to them that's not seen any more in this kind of filmmaking.

Take a film from a few years back, Dominic Sena's highly forgettable Swordfish. That movie included a similar-in-scope car chase and shootout through downtown Los Angeles. But its scene throws in so much in an attempt to keep our attention - from rapid-fire editing to massive machine gun fire to John Travolta's ridiculous in-car acrobatics - there's no visceral thrill to the chase. You're just watching a lot of expensive effects and pyrotechnics go off.

The Driver has nothing in the way of special effects. It's just a bunch of stunt drivers executing brilliant, death-defying moves in vintage automobiles. And yet the effortless, simple cinematography and brilliant stunt coordination produces a much more exciting, intense effect than Sena's bloated, multi-million dollar extravaganza. Even a scene of The Driver showing off in an empty parking lot beats anything in Swordfish in terms of thrills (or, for that matter, comedy).

This film was a tremendous amount of fun. Along with Southern Comfort, it's a shamefully overlooked gem from Walter Hill, one of America's great contemporary action filmmakers.


Cory said...

Walter Hill..director and co-writer of Undisputed, one of the worst films I've seen. TERRIBLE. I pitied poor Peter Falk for having to degrade himself in that movie.

Lons said...

Okay, they all can't be winners, but look at the guy's filmography! That's a lot more good projects than bad!