The Driver (1978) / Thriller-Action

MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running Time: 91 min.

Cast: Ryan O'Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Rudy Ramos, Ronee Blakley, Joseph Walsh, Matt Clark, Felice Orlandi, Denny Macko
Director: Walter Hill
Screenplay: Walter Hill
Review published June 13, 2010

Ryan O'Neal (Malibu's Most Wanted, Barry Lyndon) plays the traditional Steve McQueen taciturn lone wolf role (not a surprise, as the role was written for McQueen), in this noir-ish chase film from writer-director Walter Hill (48 Hrs., Undisputed).  It's an old fashioned cat-and-mouse thriller, ensconced in an existential self-consciousness, where the cop and crook try to outsmart each other, and we're conflicted about rooting for the "bad guy" to to the fact that the good guys don't seem much better.

No names are given to anyone in the film.  O'Neal plays "The Driver", a professional who assists high-paying lowlifes make their getaway through the streets of Los Angeles after bank heists and other criminal misdeeds. He's arrogant, off-putting, but they put up with his demands because he's simply the best at what he does.  He's tenaciously pursued by The Detective (Dern, Coming Home), who has become so fixated on taking down The Driver once and for all, he's willing to cross the line of proper police procedure to finally catch his ever-elusive prey.  He's assisted by The Player (Adjani, Bon Voyage) as an eyewitness who proclaims him not the one who did the deed, which gets him out of his latest tight jam.  It's going to take a criminal mind to catch a criminal, and The Detective strikes a deal (more like blackmail) with some two-bit thugs looking at a lengthy jail sentence in order to set up a heist to catch The Driver in the act.  

Taut and extremely well-edited car chase sequences are the real star of The Driver, and they are worth the price of admission alone for action fans.  Breathtakingly shot through the streets of Los Angeles with real stunt drivers and no discernible sped up action, when the heads stop talking and the wheels start screeching, that's when Hill's movie comes to life.  Not to say that what's in between is bad -- not at all.  O'Neal may not have the screen presence of Steve McQueen, but he imbues his character with the necessary complexity underneath the seemingly monosyllabic utterances.  Logic might dictate that if these guys would just get out of their car, they could easily get away without nearly as much effort, but the chip on his shoulder won't allow it -- he's going to live or die by the car. 

Dern, who might be the only cast member required to elaborate or emote on what he's thinking at any given time, steals the show as a conniving cop so sick of being bested that he loses all claim to the moral high ground by inadvertently doing more damage to the city than The Driver ever does.  The script is lean, surprisingly as Hill made his mark before directing as a screenwriter, with its protagonist uttering only between 300 and 400 words during the entire film. 

Like a Western on wheels, The Driver explores the fine line between law and lawlessness, order and chaos, through the more modern cityscape backdrop.  Except in this one, you'll probably root for the prey to escape the hunter, breaking the law but not intimidated by the thugs that hire him either, bound by his own credo that money's what he needs, as well as the need for speed.  Not nearly as popular as the Fast and Furious films which it possibly inspired, the grittiness of the story line, real non-CGI vehicular carnage, and quality of the direction make this a superior choice for the car chase film fanatic.             

Qwipster's rating:

©2010 Vince Leo