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Movie Reviews : An Exhilarating 'Drive' on the Road to Nowhere

August 07, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two minutes into "Drive" (Los Feliz, Hollywood), during a brief, sizzlingly bright monochrome montage of engines, automotive accessories and L.A. roadways, you can tell that director Jefery Levy has lots of visual style.

And two minutes into the first monologue of David Warner, as the cynical, older Driver who harangues his younger Passenger (Steven Antin), while driving him to their separate computer companies, you can tell that Levy's co-writer, Colin MacLeod, has style too: verbal energy, wit, dash and flair.

At that point, you should probably just settle in for the ride. The movie has its lapses and longueurs , but these people are going to burn up the road.

"Drive" is one of the best and most exciting indie American releases so far this year, an independent American film, made for about half a million dollars, that does exactly what low-budget movies should do. It avoids formula, converts its "limitations" into assets. It's audacious, fiery, defiantly off the mainstream. And it's highly personal. You can sense, as you can't with most big studio movies, that "Drive" is exactly the film its makers wanted to do, that they're not holding anything back, playing anything cagey or close.

In the movie, the Driver is furiously malcontent. Ruthlessly, like a latter-day H. L. Mencken, he takes on all of American life and finds it all ludicrous. He dissects left and right, society and its dissidents. He's the ultimate conservative iconoclast: For him, "Rambo" and "Born on the Fourth of July" are the same movie. As his bile mounts, the constantly shifting, blazingly bright backgrounds take on ironic significance. He's driving west, toward the sea, yet his take on life suggests that he's speeding from one dead end to the other.

The younger Passenger is, at first, sullen and resentful, sick of the same scabrous routines he's heard endlessly on their rides together, his head buzzing with jumbled, inchoate thoughts. Then he's revealed as a troubled romantic, upset at a relationship's end; then, he becomes a filmmaker surrogate, eager to convert this whole mad experience into a movie.

In form and structure, and in the savagery of its dialogue and exchanges, "Drive" suggests Edward Albee's "Zoo Story" on wheels: a connection that might seem more obvious if the passenger were a hitchhiker instead of another computer employee. But Levy is dealing with the post-affluent, post-Reagan age, and his suicidal rebel isn't the younger outsider. He's the man of the Establishment, the man driven crazy by it, who wants to squash all illusions.

The metaphor here is obvious. Society is disintegrating; technology and the fossil-fuel age are breaking up; the road leads nowhere; L.A.'s car culture is a crock. The only escape is into imagination and art.

Back in 1966, David Warner played one of the quintessential '60s movie rebels, the mad artist title character in "Morgan," and here his Driver is a weird extension: Morgan caged. Warner always seems on the verge of leaning or bursting right out of the frame, his loose, angular height and malicious smile, wrapped up in corporate-clone armor, are wildly disturbing.

Even though it's a two-character piece (three, if you count Dedee Pfeiffer as the Passenger's Dream Girl), with lots of dialogue, "Drive" is definitely a movie. It's explosively well shot and made, by cinematographer Steven Wacks and editor Lauren Zuckerman, as well as Levy, MacLeod and the actors. Even when it alienates or tires you, and brings in a forced AIDS interlude or the same, overrepeated imagery of ocean or ants crawling over a grass blade, "Drive" always has a few more surprises, rants, raps or bits of visual poetry up its sleeve.

In the end, the diatribes become exhilarating, the rage turns poignant, the sunlight scorching. That's part of the movie's vision: Hell is a freeway with no exit.

'Drive'

David Warner: The Driver

Steven Antin: The Passenger

Dedee Pfeiffer: The Girl

A Megagiant Entertainment Inc. production. Director Jefery Levy. Screenplay by Colin MacLeod, Levy. Producers Gregory D. and Jefery Levy. Cinematographer Steven Wacks. Editor Lauren Zuckerman. Music Charles Bisharat & Dr. Lee. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature (language).

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