Although its time has come and gone in terms of cinematic trends, the thing “everyone” said about “Drive” was it was a sleeper hit, only known of and loved by the faithful, and it deserved some of the fame of “Rush Hour” (a film which it predated by a year). What it definitely was, was the purest Western version of Hong Kong action cinema we’d seen, and even 15 years after it was released, it remains pretty unusual, a standout in a genre which seemed to live and die based on the English-language careers of Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
Looking at it now, it resembles Shane Black being asked to direct a sort of “Rush Hour” / “Midnight Run” hybrid, only with a much lower budget and one of the best fight co-ordinators in the world on staff. Mark Dacascos is a Toby Wong, a Chinese medical experiment who’s been given a bunch of cybernetic implants and a super-battery in his chest, which makes him the the hardest quickest martial artist in the world. Due to a fairly flimsy explanation involving a dead wife or girlfriend or something, he escapes to go to America to sell the implants to a friendly American company.
This movie’s age is amply demonstrated by the Chinese being villains – in recent years, we’ve had stuff like “Red Dawn” where the Chinese were digitally altered into North Koreans and “The Interview” where China was shown to be a virtual paradise compared to its evil North Korean neighbours. China’s box office is worth a lot of money and they unfortunately can’t tolerate the slightest criticism of their way of life. A bit like if you want to show the actual US Army in your movie.
The plot is, to be kind, flimsy. Wong gets himself a sidekick, a guy who just happened to be in the same bar as the first fight involving Toby (Malik, played by the almost-a-superstar Kadeem Hardison), and along the way they get help from hotel owner’s daughter Brittany Murphy, a fantastic OTT performance as almost a trainee 1950s movie “bad girl”, but one who’s still super-kind and generous. She’s great, as are the two chief bad guys tasked with tracking Toby down (“That Guy” actors par excellence John Pyper-Ferguson and Tracey Walter).
If you were being exceptionally unkind, however, a criticism you could level is that it’s more like a highlight reel than it is a movie with a story. Dacascos is a gifted screen martial artist, and combining his talent with the fight choreography of Koichi Sakamoto produces some truly breathtaking fight scenes. The most famous is justifiably the hotel room fight, where five guys fight in a small set, turning the tiny space into a blur of punches, kicks and stuff being thrown at people; but it’s far from the only great fight in the movie. The disused factory (thank heavens for disused factories), the dock and the final fight at the bar are spectacular too. It’s definitely best to not expect a great and complex plotline – this is fighting and comedy and fighting and fighting.
Kadeem Hardison is a great deal better at both comedy and acting than Chris Tucker, his corresponding actor in “Rush Hour”; and Dacascos holds his own against the by-then-aging Jackie Chan really well. His comic chops are surprising too – for instance, the karaoke scene feels like it comes out of nowhere but works really well. Given the choice between watching this again and “Rush Hour”, I’d pick this – less to get annoyed by, less Chris Tucker, and although the budget is appreciably lower, they don’t waste a penny of it. There’s also little wonderful oddities dotted around the film, and I’m not just talking Brittany Murphy’s performance. There’s a couple of in-movie TV shows that the characters watch and comment on – one where a group of underwear models beat up criminals with their high heel shoes inside a UFC-style octagon; and then there’s “Walter the Einstein Frog”, a giant frog with a brain enclosed in a glass helmet, who helps pilot spaceships and perform tricky surgeries and so on. They’re touches that didn’t need to be in the movie, and make me sad that screenwriter Scott Philips never went on to the Shane Black-sized career he deserved (based on this movie, anyway).
A minor classic of a genre that seems to have morphed into movies like “The Raid”. Watch it, make sure you’re watching the UK director’s cut DVD, and you’ll have a good time.
Rating: thumbs up