Drive

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May 27, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

Why didn’t Mark Dacascos ever make it as a bona-fide action star? He seemed to have everything you could ask for: athletic skills, boyish good looks, the muscular build of a young Van Damme and a similarly goofy grin. All that and no distracting European accent. Before it sounds like I’m considering changing teams for Mr. Dacascos, I’ll remind you that the aforementioned traits seem the stock and trade of other accepted action heroes of the ’80s and ’90s. So maybe it is the accent after all that led Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Lundgren to success.

Then again, I realise now I predicated my assessment of Dascacos’ action hero chops on a single film. Having since seen more of his career I now understand that he never made it because films like Only the Strong1 and The Base2, both of which he headlined, are so bad even the most forgiving of action fans could probably best describe them as lame3. As a film fan it hardly matters, quality bests quantity and the single film that suggested Dacascos as a major talent is still something to behold. I’m talking, of course, of Drive – easily one of the best action films America has ever produced.

Before Jason Statham and Crank there stood Dacascos as Toby Wong, a diminutive Chinese martial arts expert with a bio-engine in his chest that afforded him super-fast reflexes and super-human strength. The problem is that Toby doesn’t really want to continue working for The Leung Corporation that installed his engine. The love of a good woman (now deceased, of course) freed him of the will to be a covert assassin and now he’s journeyed to California to sell the technology to another, presumably slightly less evil, corporate entity. There he meets the down-on-his-luck Malik Brody (Kadeem Hardison) who, after an initially rough introduction, agrees to help Toby make it to Los Angeles. All the while the evil Leung Corporation give chase led first by the pairing of Vic Madison (John Pyper-Ferguson) and Hedgehog (Tracey Walter) and later by the supremely evil ‘Advanced Model,’ embodied by the suave Masayo Katô4.

So that makes things pretty clear, I think. Structurally we’re not witnessing anything new. This is a standard ‘buddy’ action movie with ‘road’ elements thrown in for good measure. The emphasis lies on this being a great action film. These genres, indeed almost all genres, have long relied on a motto of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and there’s very little reason to blame them. Focusing on the kinaesthetic, action cinema should generally expend as much effort as it can on action rather than story. To be sure, a certain balance is preferable. Action generally doesn’t work in the entirely abstract, but if a certain type of foundation yields good support for shed-loads of violence then there’s no shame in re-using the same basic structure over and over again. It’s a shame then that modern Hollywood has tried the exact opposite: dressing up the foundations as best they can and then forgetting to expend the necessary effort required to craft quality sensory spectacle. In this sense Drive is pleasantly old-school, harking back more to the ’80s and early ’90s than looking ahead to the next decade of action cinema which was largely shaped by The Matrix, released just two years later.

Setting aside the action choreography, a triumph by any measure and the real backbone of the film, what aids Drive in being so thoroughly entertaining is the provision of two ridiculous double-acts at its centre. Usually these films can only sustain one set of buddies but Wang’s film finds space for both a major and a minor pairing. Alongside the good guys we have Vic Madison and Hedgehog, an unlikely pair of high-end assassins who are clearly out of their depth hunting a man they’re not allowed to kill. Introduced in every scene with the twang of a slide guitar, Madison is a scenery-eating villain who’s so proudly and relentlessly mean-spirited he’s like a live-action incarnation of Beastly from The Care Bears5. Beside him is the inexplicably monikered Hedgehog6, another good-old-boy, who seems entirely unsuited to the task of professional assassination. Veteran character actor Tracey Walter plays him with a skilled comic touch, successfully reigning in the broad humour on which the character is predicated.

Along the way we get a couple of other notable appearances from recognisable faces. James Shigeta turns in a menacing performance as the utterly cold-hearted Mr. Lau, president of the corporation that seeks to reclaim Toby Wong. As the sleek and deadly ‘advanced model,’ Masayo Katô proves to be perfect casting – his carefully maintained exterior oozing inhuman menace. Still the real scene-stealer comes in the unlikely form of (the late) Brittany Murphy. Admittedly I’m no expert on her larger career, but her brief role here, as the hopelessly awkward and unsupervised teenager Deliverance, is absolutely riotous. She shamelessly hits on our two heroes, laments her dreary teenage life and also seems oblivious to the danger when bands of armed hitmen descend on her parents’ motel. It wasn’t quite the party she was planning but she doesn’t seem to mind as Murphy’s performance unleashes a host of bizarre tics – an actress ably performing a teenager’s “act.”

Adding to Drive’s affable nature is its impressively lo-fi atmosphere. It walks a fine line, teasing the most out of its own humble budget while also trying to offer the grander sense of spectacle associated with more lavish titles. It never seems “cheap,” even as eagle-eyed viewers might notice that a futuristic, wall-mounted keypad is simply a ‘Lights Out’ electronic game unit stuck in place for effect. It is simply modest. The film measures out its resources with an impressive degree of control – not spending everything on one big set-piece and subsequently reducing the rest of the film to filler.

We move from a shipyard to a bar to a massive industrial platform in the middle of the desert to a motel until finally we reach a space-themed nightclub – one of the film’s few conspicuously “constructed” backdrops. So well measured is the film’s budget that there’s even time for a few interludes that reinforce the idea that we are privy to a world that looks just like our own but is somehow set in a darker, potential near-future. A TV game-show features bikini-clad women beating ex-cons (Madison sourly declares, “This show is not as good as it once was.”) while elsewhere we’re treated to the exploits of Walter the Einstein Frog (“That’s one smart frog,” Deliverance opines).

So, having initially set it aside, I guess it’s about time to devote a few words to the action. Considering Drive manages to maintain a coherent story, unfold a little bit of dramatic background, and also give Mark Dacascos a goofy music number, it’s impressive how much event is squeezed in. The majority of the action sequences are astutely choreographed to encompass the props that would seem natural to each locale. It’s likely that stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto saw this as a chance to pad his résumé with something that doesn’t hinge on lycra-clad poseurs punching rubber monsters in the face7. With each new environment different details are added to liven up the choreography including one whole fight which sees our two protagonists hand-cuffed together (admittedly with some remarkably stretchy metal) or another fantastic showdown that unfolds in the confines of a tiny motel room. Throughout we’re reminded that the action here is never ‘business-as-usual’ but rather a group of skilled individuals trying to show us their very best.

Their best is undeniably impressive. Having seen the film more times than is probably healthy I may be a little more keyed-in than a first-time viewer to the amount of stunt-doubling that Wang and co. utilise, but Dascascos still boasts an athletic presence that leaps him ahead of the bulk of western stars. He’s more in the vein of Hong Kong cinema heroes, lightweight and spry, more likely to backflip away from an incoming blow rather than indulge his machodom by absorbing the impact without so much as a flinch. Indeed, as if tipping hats to their influences, at one point Toby Wong offers the pseudonym ‘Sammo Hung’ to a prying police officer.

The combat is fast, detailed and satisfying. Tricky stunt-falls and a few audacious wire-gags provide ostentatious moments of spectacle but the bulk of the film, and the bulk of its success, comes in the lightning fast unarmed duels, easily rivaling thoroughbred fare from Hong Kong. Unlike so much American action cinema that, when it dabbles at all in martial arts, usually either focuses on blood-letting or else on laboured, remarkably un-thrilling bouts of fisticuffs, Drive maintains pace with its Eastern counterparts. It offers more technique and thus, more excitement, with every passing minute than plenty of Hollywood action cinema can manage within the industry-standard ninety.

Of paramount importance to the success of the action is Steve Wang and cinematographer Michael G. Wojciechowski’s placement of the camera and editor Ivan Ladizinsky’s measured cuts. Even the best of choreography, if it’s not properly filtered through the limitations and possibilities of the camera and editing suite, can end up bland and uninvolving on screen. Carefully modulating camera height and position, Wang and co. capture each punch and flip with the appropriate zest, while the manoeuvres flow and maintain their energy through exceptionally fluid editing. The latter is particularly noteworthy when so much of Hollywood action cinema these days seems to assume any stretch of film that lasts more than a second without a cut is somehow robbing the audience of excitement/epilepsy. Through its every frame Drive exudes the knowledge and respect its makers have for quality martial arts cinema.

Though the comedy is very traditional, it’s hard not to find yourself swept up in it as the actors themselves seem to be having so much fun unfolding it for you. That may be the biggest secret to the success of the project, its unashamed sense of fun. At no point does Drive try to posture as some sort of self-serious, hard-edged exercise in extremity – the standard for all too much of modern action cinema. Even its most dramatic moments, fueled by the danger confronting the protagonists, seems in good spirits. Honestly, it’s sort of a surprise that the bad guys have to die in the end but, sticking with the traditional, one supposes it’s a required step.

Even as we might pick out faults they seem strangely forgivable. If Hardison’s endless wise-cracking sometimes misses the mark then there’s another vein of humour in watching Dacascos try and keep a straight face during his outbursts. He was hearing them for the first time too as Wang allowed Hardison to openly improvise throughout. It’s a risky move, giving anyone that sort of space, but it pays off here as the buddy dynamics are easily offset against the plethora of action sequences that form the backbone of the feature. On that note, again playing Devil’s Advocate and trying to focus on the negative, the editing “cheats” here and there – such as disguising jump-cuts in one particular battle with flashes of light from tasers. The truth is, with the rest of the film so effectively laid out and the fundamental choreography being cogently envisioned within its surroundings, these ‘short-cuts’ end up serving as fairly serviceable stylistic flourishes.

So that’s about it then. All that’s left is for you to go watch the film and then tell me it’s rubbish. Lord knows it’s happened before. Still, if even one other person sees the film I see then perhaps it’ll be worth it. Revisiting it again after a couple of years I’m still confused as to why this film never made a larger impact. It perhaps has to do with the meddling of its U.S. distributors who removed a chunk of the film’s backstory and substituted the original music score for, “that hard rocking music the kids like.” The European release, labelled the ‘Director’s Cut,’ maintains the original vision of those involved and is certainly the one to seek out. So go on, treat yourself. There’s plenty of cinema on this site that’s designed to expand mental horizons or push the envelope of aesthetic beauty. Drive represents a slightly more modest goal although honestly, just as tricky a task when push comes to shove. After all, as they say, if you can play comedy, you can play anything. And if you can insert gymnastic martial arts trickery in there too then I’m game.

1 Teaming him with regular Van Damme collaborator Sheldon Lettich. The result is worse than anything that duo got up to – including the tedium of The Order.

2 Teaming him with Mark L. Lester, the man who gave us the indomitable Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the ‘more entertaining than it has any right to be’ Showdown in Little Tokyo with Dolph Lundgren, Brandon Lee and, most importantly, a young Tia Carrere.

3 Okay, I know this isn’t true. I once encountered someone who thought Seagal’s astonishingly dull and incomprehensible The Foreigner was, “a cut above the usual.” I’ve seen The Foreigner. In fact, I’ve seen it twice! The only thing it’s “a cut above” is genocide and even then it’s way more boring.

4 As a side note, there’s also a tiny role for David Hayter, the English-language voice of video game character Solid Snake. It’s so small I can’t even remember if he gets a line or not. He plays a cop and I think he might yell, “Hands up!” or something.

5 And there you have it. I believe this counts as Cinelogue’s first overt Care Bears reference. A most auspicious day.

6 A reference to his unkempt looks, his unpleasant diet, or simply to the fact that his best defence when violence occurs is to roll up and try and weather affairs as best he can? Or maybe he’s just called Hedgehog.

7 Koichi Sakamoto and his Alpha Stunts Team primarily made their living as the stunt performers for various incarnations of The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show.

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