Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Movie: The Driver (1978)

Terrill Lankford – read his novel EARTHQUAKE WEATHER, you’ll thank me later – wrote about this stripped-down noir on Ed Gorman & Friends a while back. His review prompted me to catch up with it, one of the few films by Walter Hill that I hadn’t seen.

My film school professor summed up why I’m a Hill fan when he said that, alone among contemporary action filmmakers, Hill is able to get a genuine sense of danger into his movies. Just look at his best-known films. THE WARRIORS uncannily captures that feeling of dread that erupts an instant before violence does. 48HRS. may be famous for launching Eddie Murphy’s big screen career, but there’s real menace lurking in the corners of the frame – and in Nick Nolte’s performance.

Hill’s flair for depicting the low life remains evident in his later films, like the underrated JOHNNY HANDSOME. And he’s still riding tall in the saddle, winning an Emmy last year for directing the premiere episode of HBO’s DEADWOOD.

So why had I blown off THE DRIVER? Two words: Ryan O’Neal. I couldn’t see him as a tough, monosyllabic wheelman targeted for a personal vendetta by obsessed cop Bruce Dern. It was the tough part that bothered me; I figured the monosyllabic thing was doing O’Neal a favor.

The movie, made in Hill’s customary lean style, is an example of pure action cinema. There’s only the bare bones of a plot, which makes just enough sense to hang together. What it does have is stupendous vehicle work, great use of downtown Los Angeles locations, and a rough American approximation of the self-conscious cool of Jean-Pierre Melville films.

If THE DRIVER had been made in France, it would be hailed as a minor classic. If it starred anyone other than O’Neal, who’s too light a presence to register in this role, it would be a tough-guy staple. As it is, I’ll go along with TL on this one: it’s an interesting failure that’s definitely worth watching more than once.

And now you’ll get your chance. The movie debuted on DVD last week, and you can pick it up for as little as seven bucks.

Miscellaneous: Links

Speaking of pure action cinema, one of the best film stories of recent months was Michael Davis. After decades of working in Hollywood, he hit the big time with his original screenplay SHOOT-‘EM-UP. I had the chance to read it and thought it was a blast, a wild, kinetic ride that used Hill’s spare writing style to describe over-the-top mayhem.

And now that Clive Owen has been signed to play the lead, I’m ready to camp out in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater for tickets. Even if the movie doesn’t play there.