12.29.2017

Drive (1997)

PLOT: A Chinese corporation implants a man with a synthetic “bio-engine” that gives him enhanced reaction time, speed, and fighting ability. When he flees to California, the group scrambles to prevent him from delivering the device to a competitor. This is why it’s important to require your cyborg prototypes to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Director: Steve Wang
Writer: Scott Phillips
Cast: Mark Dacascos, Kadeem Hardison, John Pyper-Ferguson, Brittany Murphy, Tracey Walter, James Shigeta, Masaya Kato, Ron Yuan, David Hayter


PLOT THICKENER

In a 2010 article for Wired, comedian Patton Oswalt articulated the idea, “Everything that ever was, available forever” (ETEWAF) as a way of framing geek culture in the era of high-speed Internet and on-demand content. In some ways, this idea also extends to our current film geek landscape, where dozens of boutique genre film distribution labels are dedicated to the high-resolution restoration of obscure films that were only ever released to the VHS rental market (if that!) The horror and exploitation genres have been the primary beneficiaries of this technological wave, resulting in the mass availability of films that few saw during their initial home video runs. Unfortunately, the vast majority of cult action films have been orphaned as undeserving of this same glossy treatment. That said, if I were to start my own prestige action movie label tomorrow, and I was forced to pick one movie as the flagship release, it would be Steve Wang’s 1997 film, Drive.


Toby Wong (Dacascos) is a walking, talking science experiment, implanted by the nefarious Leung Corporation with an experimental “turbo drive” device that gives him borderline superhuman physical abilities. When things go sideways, Wong flees to the American West Coast, hoping to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles to a more benevolent tech company that will uninstall the device and pay him a hefty sum of money for the technological advances that it yields. Unfortunately, Leung Corporation’s head honcho, Mr. Lau (Shigeta) has outsourced the apprehension of Wong (the “object”) to a group of violent and savvy American mercenaries led by Vic Madison (Pyper-Ferguson) and Hedgehog (Walter), and they’re hot on Wong’s trail.

Mere moments after pulling up a stool at a Bay Area bar to drink some five-hop hipster brew, Toby is forced to fight and flee again, this time with the help (however coerced) of a struggling and divorced songwriter, Malik Brody (Hardison) and his 1973 Dodge Challenger. After Toby shares the reasons for his actions and offers Malik half of his money once they get to L.A., the pair joins together for a high-paced chase from a dangerous group of men. Will they make it to Los Angeles in one piece? Can they trust each other, let alone the people they meet along the way? And is it elephant seal mating season at this time of year? Because I’ve heard there are some good stops along the Pacific Coast Highway to watch them on the beach.


THIS MOVIE IS INSANE. I’ve been banging this drum for a long time, and I haven’t seen everything, but Drive has the best fight choreography of any American action b-movie I’ve ever seen. You can certainly make arguments for both of the Undisputed sequels, a few other Scott Adkins movies, or perhaps 2008’s Broken Path (directed by Koichi Sakamoto, who did choreography in this film), but for me, this is still tops. The differences in environment, the use of weapons (e.g., guns, “stun rods,” boots, and even dirtbikes), and the consideration of impediments (e.g., Toby handcuffed to Malik), are all deployed logically and effectively. The fight scenes scale well, they’re shot and edited competently, and they escalate appropriately toward a truly bonkers climax where Toby fights a more advanced model of himself (Kato) in an Apollo-themed night club. The filmmakers, comprised of a Taiwan-born American director and an action team of primarily Japanese and American performers, managed to approximate the look and feel of classic Hong Kong fight choreography (specifically, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung) during just a six-week production schedule. Is it *as good* as the best from Hong Kong’s golden era? No, but it’s in the conversation. That alone is a major feat for a low-budget direct-to-video action film made in the States.

As good as the fight scenes are, you have to also consider what’s happening during the downtime. The plot is silly but fairly simple, with elements of a road movie, a reluctant partner buddy-cop dynamic, and the man-as-machine territory Wang previously explored with the Guyver films. Hardison and Dacascos forge an easygoing chemistry together over the course of the film; the early bits feel a little forced but Hardison’s light demeanor makes their conversations interesting and at the mid-way point, they started to play better off each other. Their counterparts on the other side of the moral spectrum, John Pyper-Ferguson and Tracey Walter, have a more consistent and natural vibe, along with quirkier character ticks. Walter’s Hedgehog is into bad American television programming (e.g., Walter the Einstein Frog, more on that here) and a junk food intake bemoaned by his partner, Madison. In creating the look for his country-fried hitman, Pyper-Ferguson seems to be channeling equal parts Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff and Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula with his bolo ties, tinted glasses, and manicured facial hair. It’s an odd, entertaining performance and he delivers some of the best lines of dialogue in the film (on Toby, he remarks that “the son of a bitch could eat flour and shit cupcakes.”)


Brittany Murphy’s performance as the flaky, motel heir, Deliverance Bodine is alternately grating and colorful. At times, she lays on the crazy vibe too thick, and combined with her exposition-laden dialogue, it makes the character feel one-dimensional. (We’ve all met people who come on too strong too quickly, so it’s still believable). It’s only through Deliverance’s continuing interactions with Malik and Toby that we see Murphy peel away the additional layers -- she knows a ton about cars and handles automatic weapons with the glee of a kid in a water balloon fight -- and by the end of the trio’s time together, I was actually looking forward to more. I may be alone on that, and I’m fine with it. 

In terms of overall performance, Dacascos may be the biggest revelation of them all. As the action star and focal point of some fast and complex fight choreography, he’s already carrying a heavy load. He surprised me with his ability to handle comedy, though, from his timely facial expressions to a bizarre singing scene that precedes the climax. Very few action stars have the will and self-awareness to try some of that stuff, let alone make it work. This sort of rare and multi-faceted performance will only reinforce the notion that Dacascos should have been a much, much bigger star. (Iron Chef America ain't a bad place to unwind, I suppose.)

If there’s one big critique I have of this film, it’s the pacing and padding. The version of the film I watched was the 117-minute director’s cut. That’s a bit long for this sort of movie, and you really notice the length during several scenes with expository dialogue that don’t move the story forward. According to one of the special features on the disc, Dacascos’s singing scene at the Apollo 14 Club -- he serenades Malik with a song about Malik’s own dysfunctional romantic relationship with his ex-wife -- was only supposed to show three verses. With this version of the film, we get the whole shebang, and while it’s kinda funny and a great example of Dacascos’s charisma, it’s endemic of the sort of bloat that occasionally dogs the movie. Because the action scenes are so frequent and so good, this film gets away with it, but a lesser action film might not. Similar to Guyver: Dark Hero, it seems that Wang either fell in love with too much of the footage, or couldn’t determine how to streamline the story in the editing room.


When Seasonal Films started their run of English-language productions back in the mid-1980s, they infused those films with varying versions of Hong Kong style action choreography. They recognized that good fight scenes took time, but the process was a worthy investment. The blueprint had been translated and was demonstrated to work for the American market. So many American b-movies that came afterward were either unable or unwilling to follow that model, though, and you’ve been reading about those movies for years on this very platform. Drive is something a perfect storm, though. It had a great action star, with a great stunt team, along with a director with unique visual sensibilities, and just enough money to make it all work. But it also came at a time when American audiences, especially those consuming DTV action films, had more and more Hong Kong film directly at its fingertips. Drive was able to cater directly to that appetite in a way that its DTV brethren of the decade prior probably ignored. 

VERDICT

Generally speaking, Drive is not a perfect film, but its strengths are so off-the-charts exceptional, that it would be ridiculous of me to dock it points for the absence of silly DTV genre markers like Zubaz pants or bad line delivery. After all, shouldn’t fight films be about the fighting itself? If your answer is no, quit being a smart-ass. If your answer is yes, there is no finer or more convincing example of an English-language movie executing Hong Kong-style action choreography during this era than Drive. The Seasonal Films Corporation’s “Super 7” set the bar, and this film just about jumps over it. Strongly recommended. 

AVAILABILITY

Your best bets are Amazon or eBay on DVD. Be mindful that there's a few different versions floating around, including the aforementioned "Director's Cut" with lots of bonus features.

7 / 7

3 comments:

  1. Well this makes my day! Yeah, its pretty undeniable that this is one of the last great American martial arts action films. Perfectly placed in time before CGI was affordable for a modest budget, as an audience we can trust the image as truly being there. Its a very good comparison to put this against the Seasonal pictures, which are really the only American works that can sit beside it. The Director's cut DVD has great extras and is a loving document. It puts the film into context and explains the goal Steve Wang had, which was to make the greatest HK action tribute, a film with immense visual integrity. Not long after this, The Matrix comes along and kind of kills the action film's truthful image forever, so Drive came along as you say in a perfect storm scenario, the combination of great stunt-personnel, imagination, reasonable budget and pre-CGI FX. This is a wonderful film that will be studied (Along with the Seasonal pictures) for its important contribution to American cinema. Because of their Hong Kong lineage, you could say these films are the most authentic continuation of style from the Hollywood Silent era comedies. Its like that style went overseas to Jacques Tati, Jackie Chan, Rowan Atkinson for several decades and then came back again via a small collection of American B-movies. With DRIVE, its re-cutting and confused DTV release denied it of a more glorious reception and potential series of sequels. But as Vincent Gallo says, you can effect the release of a film, even bury it, but you cannot effect its impact. The work is the work and this Directors Cut DVD remains an important testament to cinema. Frankly, if the Criterion were more open minded and less self-conscious, this would be in their collection.

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  2. Could this mean we get Crying Freeman in a kind of short Dacascosathon?

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  3. Brett Ratner once told Steve Wang that he was grateful about Drive not being released in mainstream U.S. cinemas, because Rush Hour would have been seen as a pale imitation and not done as well at the box office.

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