Two films have given the getaway driver his due: Walter Hill's THE DRIVER (1978) and Nicholas Winding Refn's DRIVE (2011). Although not a remake (but definitely inspired by), DRIVE is like a first cousin once removed to THE DRIVER. THE DRIVER is gritty and urban. DRIVE is slick and glossy. Both films are set in Los Angeles (makes sense with all the highways and streets available in the City of Angels). And ironically, both leading men who play drivers are named Ryan: Ryan O'Neal in THE DRIVER and Ryan Gosling in DRIVE.
It's not surprising that writer/director Walter Hill came up with the idea and made THE DRIVER. Hill wrote the screenplay for THE GETAWAY which starred Steve McQueen. Hill must have remembered he dispatched the getaway driver early in that film. Without a good getaway driver, the whole robbery could be over before it started if the driver's not there on time. He needs to know all the escape and backup routes. He has to be adept at handling a car while chased by cops or double-crossing partners or mobsters. Director Hill even borrows (or steals) using a similar train station locker, bait and switched locker keys, and pursuit on a train scene in THE DRIVER that he wrote for THE GETAWAY.
Ryan O'Neal has no name in THE DRIVER. He's just the Driver (although Bruce Dern likes to call him Cowboy). The film opens with the Driver waiting for two bag men to emerge from a casino they have just robbed. A group of casino patrons including a woman known as the Player (French actress Isabelle Adjani) watch as the Driver peels away with the two crooks. The Driver exhibits his skills as he avoids five police cars in pursuit. But he's done with the bag men. They were late exiting the casino almost resulting in the Driver getting apprehended.
In pursuit of the Driver is the Detective (Bruce Dern). The Detective is obsessed with catching him. He brings the Player in to ID the Driver at a line-up but she won't give him up (the Driver has paid her off to be his silent alibi). So the Detective tries to set up the Driver, extorting a hot head criminal named Glasses (Joseph Walsh) and his accomplice Teeth (Rudy Ramos) to hire the Driver to help them rob a bank so the Detective can catch him after the fact. Glasses reaches out to the Connection (Ronee Blakley) to contact the Driver about the job. The Connection meets with the Driver but he doesn't want to work with shooters (aka bank robbers with guns). The Detective challenges the Driver, dares him to pull off another heist.
The Driver takes the bait. But he doesn't want trigger happy Teeth to join them. So Glasses and the Kid (Frank Bruno) pull off the job. The Driver takes them to a warehouse picked by Glasses but away from the Detective. The Driver smells a set up. The Driver shoots Glasses before Glasses can return the favor. The Driver takes the stolen cash and puts it in a locker at the train station. He needs to launder the hot money. He contacts the Player. She can help him change the stolen money for new money.
The Player sends one of her accomplices the Exchange Man (Denny Macko) to switch bags and keys with her. The Exchange Man hops on a train, pursued by the Detective. Teeth steals the Player's purse with the correct bus locker key. The Driver and the Player chase Teeth through the dark urban streets culminating in Teeth crashing his car in a large warehouse. The Driver retrieves the key. When they return to the train station, the Detective and a gaggle of cops are waiting. Will the Detective catch the Driver red handed this time?
Hill's THE DRIVER takes place in a stylized world. No one has a first or last name. It's just a description: the Driver, the Detective, the Connection, or Glasses. The city is never named but it's all downtown Los Angeles (director Hill would use many of the same locations in his 1984 retro action film STREETS OF FIRE). The Driver never appears to have any other type of job or skill besides his driving. The Detective doesn't appear to have a supervisor or follow any laws or rules (although his partner Red Plainclothesman played by Matt Clark does have a conscience and would like to see the Detective fail). For the Detective, it's all a game. You either win or lose. The Detective thinks he's on the winning team.
THE DRIVER is all machismo and muscle, much like the cars the Driver uses. In an impressive scene, the Driver literally wrecks a Mercedes Benz to prove to a skeptical Glasses he's good at driving. The Driver winds through a parking garage, scraping fenders off walls, breaking doors off their hinges as Glasses and his crew scream in fear. Ryan O'Neal (BARRY LYNDON) and Bruce Dern (BLACK SUNDAY) are excellent as adversaries. Cat and mouse. Their battle is with words and posturing, not fists. The Detective never chases the Driver once in a car. Even the female leads are masculine in THE DRIVER. French actress Isabelle Adjani (NOSFERATU and THE STORY OF ADELE H) and Ronee Blakley (NASHVILLE) could almost be male characters. No gowns or dresses for these women. Adjani barely blinks as she bounces around with O'Neal in his various getaway cars (okay she screams once when they're shot at). Blakely as the Connection gives up the Driver's plans to Teeth at gunpoint but takes a bullet like a man for her betrayal.
Ryan Gosling also plays a getaway driver with no name (although Bryan Cranston calls him "the Kid") who lives by a code in the more recent DRIVE (2011), directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and written by Hossein Amini based on a novel by James Sallis . I had heard a rumor several years ago that French director Luc Besson (LA FEMME NIKITA) was going to remake THE DRIVER. Instead, it turned out to be Danish director Refn (BRONSON and VAHALLA RISING) who made DRIVE inspired by THE DRIVER but not a remake. Refn and Gosling would later make ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013) set in Bangkok with Gosling this time as a drug smuggler.
Like the opening of THE DRIVER, DRIVE begins with the Driver (Gosling) waiting for two hooded men to break into a warehouse. "There's a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don't need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own. Do you understand?" The Driver evades a couple of police cars and a police helicopter before ditching the hooded men and the car in a sports arena parking lot as a Lakers basketball game ends. But the Driver does more than drive. He's also a stunt driver for movies and he works as a mechanic for his handler/stunt coordinator/exploiter Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon dreams of owning a stock car with the Driver behind the wheel. He goes to a mid-level gangster and former B-movie producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and borrows three hundred grand to do it.
But the Driver's world turns upside down when he falls for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who's raising her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) while his father Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) finishes up a prison sentence. When Standard is released from prison, he promises to make amends. But he's soon beat up by a vicious hoodlum/pimp Cook (James Biberi) who wants Standard to rob a pawn shop to pay off protection money that Standard owes Cook. The Driver decides to help Standard pull off the robbery, hoping this final heist will settle Standard's debts so Irene and Benicio can live safely.
The Driver finds Cook at a strip joint, breaking the pimp's fingers with a hammer until he tells him who ordered the double cross. Bernie learns of Nino's mistake and vows to clean up his mess. Only Shannon and the Driver can pin the crime on them. The Driver chases down Nino next while Bernie takes care of the unlucky Shannon. The Driver tries to give the one million dollars to Irene but she refuses. The Driver and Bernie Rose meet at a Chinese restaurant to agree to a truce and an exchange but like everything in DRIVE, even that plan doesn't work out well for either men.
Like Ryan O'Neal's Driver, Gosling's Driver is also a loner who follows his own personal code. He gives his customers a short window to complete their illegal deed. If that deed runs past five minutes, they're on their own. With his racing gloves, tooth pick, and Scorpion emblem on his gold jacket (a nice reference to the Scorpion and the Frog fable that comes true later in the film), Gosling's Driver is a free spirit seemingly with a sweet heart. But also like O'Neal, Gosling's Driver can be violent and vicious when provoked. He lives life one day at a time. But he breaks his code, trying to be a knight in shining armor, to protect Irene and Benicio's future. This fairy tale has a bad ending. He makes a deal to drive without his mentor Shannon's involvement. This choice will have dire consequences for everyone.
European director Refn brings a freshness to DRIVE making the over-filmed city of Los Angeles look new and unique. One of my favorite new composers Cliff Martinez (CONTAGION) provides the pulsating musical score. Like directors Scorsese and Tarantino, Refn gives us brief, shocking moments of violence. A fork in a pimp's eye, a hammer breaking a pimp's fingers, the Driver stomping on the face of a hitman. Grisly moments but he doesn't linger, the point made in one or two quick shots. Refn also gives us brief flashes of happiness: the Driver spending the day with Irene and Benicio or Standard's 'Welcome Home' party. But these feel good scenes are fleeting.
Rounding out the excellent cast is Bryan Cranston as the Driver's handler and father figure Shannon. Cranston, also know for comedy early in his career (TV's MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE), shocked audiences when he revealed his darker side in the breakthrough AMC series BREAKING BAD (2008 - 2013) as teacher turned meth maker Walter White. In DRIVE, Cranston's Shannon is the most heartbreaking sympathetic character, at heart a good guy that can't get out of the way of his dreams and ultimate bad luck. Oscar Isaac as Irene's husband Standard, another down on his luck character, was the young hot up and coming actor when DRIVE came out appearing in small roles with Leonardo DiCaprio in BODY OF LIES (2008) and Russell Crowe in ROBIN HOOD (2010). Isaac has now exploded into leading man roles since with the Coen Brothers INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013) and as Rebel fighter Poe Dameron in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015). Ron Perlman (HELLBOY) as Nino and Christina Hendricks (TVs MAD MEN) also play pivotal supporting roles.
Although both THE DRIVER and DRIVE are about getaway drivers and crime, neither film has non-stop car chases. Both films have two major car chase set pieces but they are effective scenes. Both films open with a car chase, exhibiting each Driver's skills. Walter Hill puts the camera inside and outside the car in THE DRIVER giving it a very visceral feel. Nicholas Winding Refn shoots the second car chase in DRIVE much like Peter Yates BULLITT (1968) with the camera speeding alongside the two cars in pursuit of one another as they hopscotch around other cars. Steve McQueen would have been proud (ironically director Hill wrote THE DRIVER with McQueen in mind. McQueen felt he had already done enough car chase films and declined). So Ryan O'Neal got the part.
Both films prove that a good getaway driver doesn't have to just drive fast either. They have to drive smartly. At times the Driver's best choice is to stay put. Turn off the headlights and hide under a bridge or behind a parked truck until the police have gone by. THE DRIVER and DRIVE are excellent case studies for focusing on one key individual of a crime. And our fascination of fast cars and the getaway driver has not gone away. This summer Edgar Wright's BABY DRIVER (2017) is released about another young getaway driver named Baby who teams up with criminals to pull off a heist while falling in love with a waitress. Sounds like Wright has seen both THE DRIVER and DRIVE. So fasten your seatbelts and enjoy two similar yet different takes on the life of a getaway driver.