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The Driver

The Driver
1978 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9; 1:33 pan-scan / 91 min. / Street Date June 7, 2005 / 9.98
Starring Ryan O'Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Ronee Blakley, Matt Clark
Cinematography Philip H. Lathrop
Production Designer Harry Horner
Film Editor Tina Hirsch, Robert K. Lambert
Original Music Michael Small
Produced by Lawrence Gordon
Written and Directed by Walter Hill

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Walter Hill made his name as a new face in action cinema starting with a script for the underrated Hickey and Boggs. His first job of direction was Hard Times with James Coburn and Charles Bronson, and he later became a top producer with Alien. Although he had big hits with buddy action comedies, Hill gravitated toward movies with an understated cool surface, purposely shallow neo-noir-ish crime dramas that substituted slightly existentialist fantasy for urban realism.

The Driver fits this model to perfection, at least in the way it is structured and stylized. Where it fails is in the acting and directing. It's a Steve McQueen movie, but with a big hole where McQueen should be.


The Driver (Ryan O'Neal) is the ultimate pro getaway specialist, picky in his jobs but even more proud of his professionalism. He's freed from a police lineup after hired 'witness' The Player (Isabelle Adjani) earns her pay by feigning an inability to identify him. Frustrated that his prey is still at large, The Detective (Bruce Dern) confidently sets up a crazy scheme to force a crook to hire The Driver for a real bank holdup, just so he can catch him in the act. The Connection (Ronee Blakely) brings the job to The Driver, who at first refuses but then goes along. The Detective springs the trap, but catching The Driver isn't as easy as he thought.

Walter Hill must be a fan of minimalist samurai films and ritualistic French crime films like Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai. His self-conscious aim in The Driver is to reduce the drama to basic elements - individual characters in a faceless urban landscape. That's why they have no names and the hero has no visible identity, just a relationship with his professional function. The Driver is his Skill. His body is the Car. Nobody can stop him; his obsession is to practice his rarified profession - escaping from bank robberies - and the only significance of the money he earns is to demonstrate that he's the top rooster in the criminal pecking order.

All of this psuedo-artsy attitude would work with the right actor in the main role, someone who need only stare to communicate pent-up male resentments along with a sense of nobility and purpose. There were many practitioners of this, some more successful than others. Steve McQueen was one of the few who could get away with it time and again - when he stared into mirrors, we believed it.

But Walter Hill got Ryan O'Neal, which is like Adam Sandler standing in for Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. O'Neal has "no sand," no weight. His presence doesn't dominate scenes. There's no particular reason for tough gangsters to be intimidated by him, for the cops to respect him, or the girl to be moved by just standing near him. He's a big nothing and the movie is still-born from the get-go. It's weird, but O'Neal is more interesting in the later misjudged embarrassment Tough Guys Don't Dance, where he at least has a personality. Here he's a top driver pulling down maybe $30,000 a month, who lives in a seedy skid row hotel just so the director's "urban vision" can be fulfilled. It's the reverse of Michael Mann, in whose crime films we find bookstore clerks living in fabulous view apartments in the Hollywood Hills (Heat).

But Hill is dealing in archtypes and Ryan's function is to be the emotionless pro at the center of a deadly game. He's emotionless, all right - his face never breaks from the same slightly tense I-don't-give-a-damn expression. I mean, he barely even blinks. He must spend all his ill-gotten loot on Visine. The producers could have saved money by firing O'Neal after his dialogue scenes were over and using a guy in a Ryan O'Neal mask for the rest of the shooting, I kid you not.

Most of the surrounding non-characters are also dull. Bruce Dern is actually quite good in his little arguments with Matt Clark, a subordinate who has a few misgivings about the wisdom of setting up a real crime with a real unstable crook with real bullets, just to catch a getaway driver. Ronee Blakely (Nashville) has a nothing role as The Driver's agent who makes an unfortunate false step. Isabelle Adjani (Herzog's Nosferatu) just stares and mopes and waits for direction that never comes. The rest of the players are functional crooks and cops suited for the mechanical chase scenes that comprise at least 40% of the show.

I have to say that by and large the chases are great. They're blocked out in masterful sequences that aren't believable but get our moving-violation hormones going anyway; O'Neal appears in a fast car of one kind or another and takes off on high-speed rallies through the pre-dawn streets of LA. The only traffic seems to be the crook vehicle and scores of pursuing cop cars. As chases, these are very well done.

But logically speaking, most of the getaways are just silly. We see O'Neal's standard getaway routine at least three times. Without any initial contact with the cops on the street, he invariably screeches away from the scene at the crime in an exaggerated fashion that would alert the NorthWest Mounted Police, let alone every LAPD cruiser within a twenty-mile radius. If he just toodled away down a side street and dropped his passengers off at a bus stop or something, it's pretty obvious he'd easily get away.

But in this existential arena the very idea is for The Driver to prove that the law can't touch him, so we get the (extremely-well blocked) action chases instead.

The best scene in the movie is when some punk robbers question The Driver's skill. The very idea of being doubted sends The Driver into his version of a rage, sublimated aggression. He gets them into their Mercedes and proceeds to destroy it in an underground garage, in a more grandiose version of the vehicular hazing Lee Marvin dishes out to the used-car salesman in Point Blank.

The end of the movie is pure Melville, the kind of dead-to-rights cop vs. crook showdown that ends with the crook making a suicidal last gesture of purity, like a samurai who doesn't mind dying if he can leave behind him a legacy of incomparable coolness. What we get here is more like a variation on an Elmore Leonard loot-in-the-locker gag, but it serves the same purpose.

Fox's DVD of The Driver presents the film in a handsome enhanced widescreen transfer that makes the action scenes easier to follow than on old Television showings. A Pan-scan version is included as well. The track is clear for all of those deadpan dialogue lines, and the jokey speeches that Bruce Dern delivers so well.

The one extra is an extended opening that was chopped off apparently at the last minute. We see Isabelle Adjani being hired as a planted witness, and are introduced to Bruce Dern's character. Neither scene is necessary, as figuring out what these people are and what they are doing gives us something to occupy our idle brains in the opening reel of the movie.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Driver rates:
Movie: Fair ++ or Good If You're a fan of car chases
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English 2 ch. Stereo, Eng. Mono, French Mono
Supplements: Alternate opening
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 1, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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