I really liked ‘Drive.’ If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to get embroiled in a rambling conversation about ’80s thrillers with me, then you’ll know that — as a child of the indy video store era — I love that genre. Title screens flash with neon, character actors crack skulls, fake blood is in abundance and when the films are at their best, there’s an inherent taint of sleaze. You can clean up the audio and video all you like, taking it to Blu-ray quality, but that sleaze is too tough to shift. ‘Drive’ is Nicolas Winding Refn’s tribute to that era and he gets it pitch perfect, while shaving off the crappier aspect, so those vintage Clubmasters of yours stay tinted. The urgency of Refn’s ‘Pusher’ trilogy seemed at odds with the cinematic rebirth of his often-ponderous ‘Valhalla Rising’ but here the deliberate pace is pitched perfect, indicating that he’s that he’s opted to (Michael) Mann up.
If we’re going to filter down my favourite ’80s thrillers, I favour films like 1980’s ‘American Gigolo’ and 1981’s ‘Thief’ (cited by Refn as an influence on ‘Drive’), where occupations clash and situations engulf the protagonists. Michael Mann’s ‘Thief’ with its stylised LA reveals a heart of darkness in James Caan’s diner conversation with Tuesday Weld, discussing a “not-give-a-fuck” mindstate that’s explosively manifested towards the film’s conclusion. It’s an amazing scene that’s out-darkened by the burst of bile from mob bawse Leo later on, but it’s a classic film. James Caan’s Ric Flair style approach to wooing is also incredible, “I wear $150 slacks, I wear silk shirts, I wear $800 suits, I wear a gold watch, I wear a perfect, D-flawless three carat ring. I change cars like other guys change their fucking shoes. I’m a thief. I’ve been in prison, all right?” On that tailored note, both ‘American Gigolo’s Julian and ‘Thief’s Frank are both kitted out for the screen by Giorgio Armani.
‘Drive’s descent into nihilism echoes elements of ‘Thief’ but there’s a sense that — had Refn had the opportunity — Michael Mann favourites Tangerine Dream would’ve scored it. The German ambience turned up to shattering levels underpinned some classics. Alongside ‘Thief’ they also contributed music to 1983’s ‘Risky Business’ to match Giorgio Moroder’s ‘American Gigolo’ work and 1977’s massively underrated William Friedkin ego-led mercenary masterpiece, ‘Sorcerer’ — Friedkin’s hard-boiled classic with extra hair gel, 1985’s ‘To Live and Die in LA’ is cited as another of Refn’s reference points, and while it lacks Tangerine Dream, it got Wang Chung on the score.
But that pink script that makes up the opening credits of ‘Drive’ is pretty compelling too. What’s the lineage of that? Pick a film from between 1980 and 1985 and you’re liable to find a reference point. The colour evokes ‘Risky Business’s opening titles, but it’s even more evocative of the lettering of the film’s poster. The scrawled ‘Sorcerer,’ ‘Thief’s script and minimal font for the leads (prior to the realistic 9-minute safe cracking sequence that sets off the film`), ‘American Gigolo’s appropriately fancy way with the letters and the fluorescent blocks of ‘To Live and Die in LA’ against a sunny backdrop may have played a part too.
Provided you can wear your reference points on your scorpion jacket sleeve without descending into a mosaic of homages, there’s no shame in taking it back to the VHS era’s most overlooked neon-noirs and ‘Drive’ pulls that off perfectly.
Bonus: With my love of 1981’s ‘Nighthawks,’ I was drawn towards 1982’s ‘The Soldier’ too, a luridly violent, silly b-movie from James Glickenhaus, the director of another personal grindhouse classic, ‘The Executioner.’ ‘The Soldier’ aka. ‘Codename: The Soldier’ benefits from an unexpected Tangerine Dream score and some phenomenal animated opening titles, full of patriotic slogans and communist images. James Glickenhaus is a very wealthy man, having moved from Hollywood to New York’s Fifth Avenue, into the financial realm. He commissioned the tricked-out Enzo Ferrari that is the one-off Ferrari P4/5 by Pinifarina — a custom job so exceptional, that Luca di Montezemolo had it officially Ferrari badged. Imagine Ryan Gosling taking that one on a getaway mission….