"Now I boot this fight up a notch!
Awww, come on, that's my sole joke!"
Renting martial arts films has almost always been hell in America. Until recently, we had essentially three options: we could go to the store and rent the umpteenth cheap HK film starring Bruce Le, Bruce Li, the Real Bruce Lee, Dragon Lee, or Brooz Lea, or we could pick up one of those awful ninja movies that seemed to define martial arts filmmaking in both the U.S. and Japan during the Eighties, or perhaps we could pick up an American-made martial arts film starring the likes of Don 'the Dragon' Wilson, Gary Daniels, or David Bradley. This last category is probably the worst. Bruce Lee clones and ninja movies are often so bad as to actually be some fun, but American martial arts films seem to be bent on sucking all the fun out of the genre. They are usually mind-numbingly violent, stylistically bland, and badly acted. Your average American martial arts film can make talented people look incompetent. Did you like Cynthia Rothrock in Yes, Madam or Righting Wrongs? Were you impressed by Richard Norton's martial skills in City Hunter? So how could Rage and Honor, starring both of them, miss?
"Now you'll sign that 'Different World
Reunion' contract or Mr. Bang-Bang
here will be veerrry unhappy!"
Well, it could. The American martial arts genre seems to be dying, because of the large infusion of HK talent (and films) to America. How can the Bloodsport movies compare, now that Yuen Woo Ping is putting Keanu Reeves through his paces, or now that Corey Yuen is choreographing X-Men, or now that John Woo makes Tom Cruise look like he could take Jackie Chan? (Well, maybe not Jackie. But Tom looked like he could take Nicholas Tse.) Plus, now we can get imported HK films easily, so we don't see much work for Don Wilson going forward.
What a pleasant surprise, then, that Drive is such a good movie. This US/Japanese co-production wants nothing more than to be a Hong Kong- inspired American martial arts movie, made with great aplomb, including some wacky character performances, exhilarating fight sequences, and one-liners fired like so much popcorn from a movie-theater kettle. Fortunately, this particular movie also sees the development of Steve Wang into a director capable of matching his aspirations.
Our film opens on a ship docked in a harbor in San Francisco. Boy, there's no way a fight could start here. (Doesn't every other Jackie Chan film start this way?) Our main character, Toby Wong (Marc Dacascos) is sneaking around, trying to get off the boat. Then some Japanese gunmen show up, and a fight starts. The gunmen are not trying to kill Toby, however, and he makes his escape by jumping overboard. Already he's displaying signs of being a few bricks shy of an outhouse, but the plot must go on.
She's very handy with a gun.
(We're on a roll!)
Meanwhile at a bar nearby, Malik Brody (Kadeem Hardison! minus the flip-down specs!), a failed songwriter, is drowning his sorrows. A bar, huh? No way a fight could start here. Then Toby shows up, followed by a bunch of goons. This time Vic, a southern-fried assassin, leads the goons. The goons attempt to surround Toby and cripple him. It never works, mainly because they always yell "Shoot him in the legs!" seconds before the do it, easily allowing Toby to jump out of the way and shoot them in return. When the police show up Vic pretends to be the victim and Toby takes Malik hostage. Toby and Malik get into Malik's Dodge Charger and Toby forces Malik at gunpoint to "Drive!" We have a title, ladies and gentlemen!
Toby is trying to get to Los Angeles, but the obligatory police road block slows things down. (Toby identifies himself as "Sammo Hung" to the officers, a gag which isn't nearly as much of an in-joke now that Martial Law is on TV.) The fugitive and his unwilling companion are taken to a nearby gravel pit, complete with an associated processing plant. No way a fight could break out here. The police, of course, have been paid off -- leaving Toby and Malik in the care of Vic, his right hand man, and some goons.
When a country music star needs
someone killed, he goes to these guys.
You may remember Vic's right hand man, played by Tracy Walter, from Batman (1989), in which he played Bob the Goon. In Drive, he plays a character named Hedgehog. Unusual name, huh? Not for Mr. Walter. In his career he has played characters named Frog, Pooch, Chicken, Beever, Roach, and Bloodhound. He's an episode of Wild America all by himself!
Toby and Malik have been shackled together for this scene, which allows for some very Jackie Chan-style humor as they avoid the guns and flailing limbs of their attackers. The resemblance to Chan's antics are not a coincidence. According to the screenwriter, this was originally written as a spec script intended for Jackie Chan and Sly Stallone. This probably explains the fish-out-of-water humor involving Toby, despite the fact that he speaks standard English better than anyone else in the cast, and why Malik is referred to as the "big one' of the pair despite not being any bigger than Toby.
Eventually Toby and Malik get away and are on the road again, at which point Malik demands to know what the heck is going on. Toby explains that he is in possession of a "bio-engine," which was implanted in his chest by an evil technology corporation. The bio-engine gives Toby super-speed (usually portrayed by having the camera cut to Dacascos just as he moves out of frame) and super-strength. He needs to get it to a rival company in Los Angeles that will pay him five million dollars for it. Toby agrees to give Malik half the money if Malik will just help him get to L.A.
"Rock beats scissors every time, loser!"
After a brief interlude involving Malik's estranged wife, the mismatched twosome heads out. Malik's car breaks down near a small town, and Toby and Malik are forced to stay at a local motel. The only person at the motel is the owner's sex-starved daughter, Deliverance. Deliverance is played by the marvelously bubbly Brittany Murphy, best known for her appearance in Clueless or her voice work as Luanne and Joseph on King of the Hill. In any case, Deliverance mentions that the motel has a "huge garage." No way a fight could break out there! Oh, and she also mentions that the motel is undergoing renovations. Hmmm... a detail that might be important in an upcoming altercation, perhaps?
While Malik fixes the car, Toby falls asleep (he sleeps extremely soundly because the bio-engine messes with his metabolism), the bad guys show up, and a fight breaks out in the garage....
OK, you get the idea. Drive is remarkably good imitation of a Hong Kong martial arts movie, but set in America with a witty American script. The plot has no great twists or turns, but keeps moving from setting to setting, each equally suited for the oh-so-stylish fighting. The finale takes place in a bizarre theme restaurant that looks like a spaceship. The set is so complicated and expensive, you just know a fight has to break out there.
The martial arts in this film are terrific. Wang and his action choreographer, Koichi Sakamoto, provide a fluid chain of movements for Dacascos to perform, and he carries them out perfectly. He may not quite be Jet Li, but we'll take him over Steven Seagal any day. At times it's difficult to believe that the camera could possibly keep up as Toby monkeys his way through the various environments (all of which have obstacle-course setups), battling bad guys in a manner of which even Jackie Chan would approve. Sakamoto is the man responsible for the stunts in the various Power Rangers television series, and though he may have had to pull his punches in a show made for kids, none of those inhibitions are present in Drive. The action in this film is brutal. As we mentioned before, Wang sometimes wears his inspirations on his sleeve, and you can see that some of the fights here are clearly inspired by Police Story and Police Story 2, but it's still the good stuff on which kung-fu action junkies thrive.
"Hey there's a fly on your helmet!
Let me get that!"
Balancing the brutality and constant fight sequences are dialogue and plot elements that, though simplistic, are funny and believable. OK, maybe the box in Toby's chest stretches the envelope a bit, but once you're past that, the plot is remarkably hole-free. And the dialogue -- good gravy, the dialogue! When Toby first takes over Malik's car, he complains, "You don't look like Miss Daisy!" when Toby chides Malik from smoking, he asks, "Who died and left you Surgeon General?" Finally, there's a line very close to our hearts; upon seeing Malik's wrecked vehicle, Deliverance asks, "When did Godzilla get a hold of your car?" We're easy to please, really -- a few one-liners, some competent chop-socky, a Godzilla reference -- that's all we want, people! Is it so difficult? Steve Wang and writer Scott Phillips don't seem to think so. What's wrong with the rest of Hollywood?
We don't normally fawn over films in this way; Lord knows, there aren't many films we watch that warrant the behavior. But Drive is one slap-dang fantastic dilly of an action movie, and even in its edited form (we saw the "Director's Cut" which made the rounds in Britain, and is about twenty minutes longer than the American version), we can recommend it without reservation. So go out, get in the car, and high-tail it to the local video store! This is one movie that's well worth the, uh... drive.
It seems that this film was written to be set in the future, which would explain the bio-engine technology and the bizarre TV shows we see people watching. Chief among the later is a sitcom called "Walter the Einstein Frog." However, the movie doesn't do a very good job of making us feel like it's the future. Go Back!