Category Archives: Heist Caper

I did not see that coming: Top 10 April Fool’s flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2016)

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I know. April Fool’s Day was yesterday. But then again, in the grand scheme of things, does that really matter? What is reality, anyway? Besides, this piece is about film, which is scant more than a “ribbon of dreams” (to quote Orson Welles) to begin with. So with that in mind, I’ve curated my top 10 narrative films wherein the characters, the viewer, or both are fooled, conned, surprised, or shockingly betrayed. Or was it all a dream…or a living nightmare? Maybe the protagonist is really d- …oops, spoiler alert! In alphabetical order:

Carny–This character study/road movie/romantic triangle is an oddball affair (Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley) yet one of my favorite films of the 1980s. Set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival, it stars the Band’s Robbie Robertson as the carny manager, Gary Busey as his pal (and dunk tank clown) and Jodie Foster as a teenage runaway who is swept into their world of con games and hustle. The story is raised above its inherent sleaze by excellent performances. Whenever he inhabits the Insult Clown persona, Busey reminds us that at one time, he was one of the most promising young actors around (at least up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed promise, but has an enigmatic resume; a film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, a nondescript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then…he’s off the radar.

Certified Copy – Just as you’re lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curveball. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Mr. Welles again) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture. (Full review).

Chinatown – There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.
  • Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.                                                                                                                  
  • You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a masterful screenplay (by Robert Towne), two leads at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (by Jerry Goldsmith), you’ll have a film that deserves its designation as a “classic”. I know to expect it now, but that family secret revealed at the end still “surprises” me.

The Godfather Part II – “I knew it was you.” The betrayal (and the payback) remain two of cinema’s greatest shockers, and Coppola’s sequel is more than equal to its predecessor.

Mulholland Drive – David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into Hollywood from Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring). What ensues is the usual Lynch mind fuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this one of his fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” with David Lynch). Some reviewers have suggested the film is structured as homage to The Wizard of Oz; while I wouldn’t dismiss that out of hand, I’d cautiously file it under “Pink Floyd theory” (see my review below). At any rate, this one grew on me; by the third (or fourth?) time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts.

Siesta – Music video director Mary Lambert’s 1987 feature film debut is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Ellen Barkin stars as an amnesiac who wakes up on a runway in Spain, dazed, bloodied and bruised. She spends the rest of the film putting the jagged pieces together, trying to figure out who she is and how she got herself into this discombobulating predicament (quite reminiscent of the 1962 film Carnival of Souls). It’s a bit thin on narrative (critical reception was mixed), but high on atmosphere and beautifully photographed by Bryan Loftus, who was the DP for another one of my favorite 80s sleepers, The Company of Wolves. Great soundtrack by Marcus Miller, and a fine supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Isabella Rosselli. The script is by Patricia Louisianna Knop, who would later produce and occasionally write for her (now ex) husband Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries cable series that aired in the ‘90s.

The Sting – George Roy Hill’s caper dramedy is pretty fluffy, but a lot of fun. Paul Newman and Robert Redford reunited with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director in this 1973 star vehicle to play a pair of 1930s-era con men who set up the ultimate “sting” on a vicious mobster (Robert Shaw) who was responsible for the untimely demise of one their mutual pals. The beauty of screenwriter David S. Ward’s clever construction is in how he conspiratorially draws the audience in to feel like are in on the elaborate joke…but then manages to prank us too…when we’re least expecting it!

The Stunt Man – How tall was King Kong?” That’s the $64,000 question, posed several times by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 drama. Once you discover that King Kong was but “3 foot, six inches tall”, it becomes clear that the fictional director’s query is actually code for a much bigger question: “What is reality?” That is the question to ponder as you take this wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment our protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is  filming an arty WW I action adventure, his (and the audience’s) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes hazy, to say the least. O’Toole really chews the scenery, supported by a cast that includes Barbara Hershey and Allen Garfield.

The Usual Suspects – What separates Bryan Singer’s sophomore effort from the pack of otherwise interchangeable Tarantino knockoffs that flourished throughout the 90s (aside from his tight direction) is a perfectly chosen cast (Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palmenteri, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Baldwin), whip smart screenplay (co-written by Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) and a real doozey of a twist ending. The story unfolds via flashback, narrated by a soft-spoken, physically hobbled milquetoast named “Verbal” (Spacey), who is explaining to a federal agent (Palmenteri) how he ended up the sole survivor of a mass casualty shootout aboard a docked ship. Verbal’s tale is riveting; a byzantine web of double and triple crosses that always seems to thread back to an elusive and ruthless criminal puppet master named Keyser Soze. The movie has gained a rabid cult following, and “Who is Keyser Soze?” has become a meme.

The Wizard of Oz – So the jury is still out as to when to drop the needle. Conventional wisdom advises the 3rd roar of the MGM lion; but there are still those who would argue the case for the 1st or 2nd roar. Then is yet another school of thought that subscribes to waiting until the logo fades to black. I’m sorry, I just realized I’m being exclusionary to readers who don’t have time to fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way, hunting for that sweet spot that syncs up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. At any rate, long before that mashup was but a gleam in a stoner’s reddened eye, Victor Fleming’s 1939 beloved musical fantasy had already been emulated, quoted, parodied and analyzed ad nauseam. Obviously, it’s on my list for 2(!) Big Reveals in the third act.

Blu-ray reissue: The Killers ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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The Killers (1946 & 1964) – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Criterion has given the HD bump to their already fabulous “twofer” package presentation of Robert Siodmak’s classic 1946 B&W film noir and the pulpy color 1964 remake by Don Siegel. Both films are adaptations from the Ernest Hemingway short story about a pair of hitmen and the enigmatic man they are stalking. Hemingway’s minimalist narrative lends a fair leeway of creative license to the respective filmmakers, and each runs with it in his own fashion.

To noir purists, of course Siodmak’s original is the preferred version, with a young and impossibly handsome Burt Lancaster as the hitmen’s target/classic noir sap and the equally charismatic Ava Gardner as the femme fatale of the piece.

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Still, the 1964 version has its merits; Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager are the epitome of 60s “cool” as the nihilistic killers, and it’s a hoot watching Ronald Reagan (quite convincingly) play a vile and vicious heavy in a film that came out the very same year he made his (politically) star-making speech at the 1964 Republican Convention (I’m thinking that there’s a Trump analogy in there somewhere).

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SIFF 2015: The Price of Fame **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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Well, this one looked good on paper (I had anticipated something along the lines of Melvin and Howard), but after a promising start, writer-director Xavier Beauvois’ “true crime” dramedy about a pair of bumbling, would-be extortionists falls curiously flat, despite earnest performances from an affable cast. The story is based on a late ‘70s incident in Switzerland in which two down-on-their-luck pals (played in the film by Benoit Poelvoorde and Roschdy Zem) cooked up a bizarre and ill-advised plan to dig up the coffin of the recently interred Charlie Chaplin and then hit his family up for money to have the body returned.

The caper itself takes a relative backseat to the main thrust of the film, which is ostensibly a character study. Therein lies the crux of the problem; these aren’t particularly interesting characters (at least as written). And the third act is nearly destroyed by that most dreaded of movie archetypes: the Maudlin Circus Clown. Beauvois’ idea to use Chaplin’s compositions for the soundtrack is clever, but he overdoes it. Peter Coyote does add an interesting turn as Chaplin’s longtime assistant.

Prisoners of love: The Dog ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2014)

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And all he got was this stupid T-shirt: The Dog

On a sultry August afternoon back in 1972, a botched Brooklyn bank robbery morphed into a tense hostage drama that played out on live TV; and once rumors began to circulate that the ringleader, a Vietnam vet named John Wojtowicz, had engineered the heist in a desperate attempt to raise funds for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery, it became a full-blown media circus.

Wojtowicz’s accomplice didn’t survive the day (he was shot dead by FBI agents) and he earned a 5 year-long stretch in the pen for his troubles. The incident inspired Sidney Lumet’s classic 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. Al Pacino’s iconic turn as Wojtowicz added shelf life to the robber-turned folk hero’s initial 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, Hollywood rarely gets it 100% right, even with stories purported to be “ripped from the headlines”. In a new documentary from co-directors Alison Berg and Frank Keraudren called The Dog, none other than John Wojtowicz himself appears onscreen to set the record straight. The first thing he wants us to know is that he’s “a pervert.” Okay then. But it’s also important for us to understand that he is “a lover” as well, because after all, in his lifetime he has had “4 wives, and 23 girlfriends.” Are we supposed to be taking notes?

Many unexpected twists and turns ensue. While it’s well established from the get-go that Wojtowicz (who died in 2006) was a riotously profane, unexpectedly engaging (if deeply weird) raconteur…he is not the only star of this show. The scene stealer? His dear (late) mother, who insists that “half of what (John) says is bullshit.”

Nonetheless, this is an absorbing film (a decade in the making) that works on multiple levels. It can be viewed as a “true crime” documentary, a social history (there are surprising tie-ins with NYC’s early 70s gay activist scene), a meditation on America’s peculiar fetish with fame whores, or (on a purely popcorn level) as a perversely compelling family freak show along the lines of Grey Gardens or Crumb. I’m giving it a three and a half out of four “Atticas!” rating:

Attica! Attica! Attica!”

Blu-ray reissue: That Sinking Feeling ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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That SInking Feeling – BFI Blu-ray (Region “B”)

This relatively obscure, low-budget 1979 wonder marked the debut for quirky Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). Sort of a Glaswegian version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, it’s the story of an impoverished teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, who comes up with a scheme to make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks. Funny as hell, imbued with the director’s unique brand of low-key anarchy and a poignant undercurrent of working class Weltschmerz. BFI’s region “B” Blu-ray* is packed with extras, and sports the cleanest transfer I’ve seen of this previously hard-to-find gem (*please note that this region “B”-encoded disc requires a region-free Blu-ray player for playback).

London’s burning: The Sweeney ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2013)

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If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching hundreds of crime thrillers over the years, it’s this: if you’re a bad guy, be wary of any police team that is known on the street as the “(insert nickname here) Squad”. Consider “The Hat Squad” in Mulholland Falls, Lee Tamahori’s 1996 neo-noir concerning the exploits of a merry crew of thuggish cops (led by growling fireplug Nick Nolte) barely distinguishable in thought or action from the criminals they chase.

The latest example is writer-director Nick Love’s new film, The Sweeney, which centers on “The Flying Squad”, a modern-day team of London coppers who share similarities with their fedora-wearing American counterparts. For one, they’re led by a growly fireplug (Brit-noir veteran Ray Winstone). He’s DI Jack Regan, a “cop on the edge” who swears by the adage: “To catch a criminal-you have to think like one”. You also apparently have to act like one; Regan and his clannish unit bend the rules (as they violate 57 civil liberties) on a daily basis. But they always get their man, sealing every take down with the catchphrase “We’re the Sweeney…and you’re nicked!”

Regan’s questionable methods have put him at loggerheads with his supervisor (Damian Lewis), and with head of internal affairs DCI Lewis (Steven Mackintosh). Lewis and Regan have a history of mutual animosity, which would likely turn into open warfare should Lewis ever discover Regan has been playing bangers and mashers with his estranged wife (Hayley Atwell) who is an officer in Regan’s squad.

However, office politics soon takes a back seat to Regan’s obsession with nailing his criminal nemesis (Paul Anderson), who Regan suspects as the mastermind behind a series of bold, military-style robberies. The squad intercepts the heavily-armed robbers in the middle of a bank score, but after a pitched gun battle on the busy London streets, they elude capture (set in Trafalgar Square, it’s the most tense and excitingly mounted cops ’n’ robbers shootout since Michael Mann’s Heat). Regan’s superiors are not pleased with his disregard for public safety, so they ask for his badge and gun; however with some clandestine help from his protégé (Ben Drew) he is soon “unofficially” back on the case.

Love’s film is based on a British TV series of the same name, which ran from 1975-1979. One needn’t be familiar with the TV version to enjoy this film, which I did immensely. The screenplay was co-written by John Hodge (Trainspotting), and is chock-a-block with crackling dialogue and amusing insult humor. Performances are excellent throughout; Winstone is perfectly cast, and I was impressed with Drew’s convincing performance as a reformed petty street criminal turned cop (you may know him as  rap artist “Plan B”).

Interestingly, while it has a number of similarities to the Mann film referenced earlier, there is one classic neo-noir that Love’s film particularly evoked, and that is William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller, The French Connection. Winstone’s character is a kindred spirit to Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle.

Both bachelors, they are slovenly and bereft of social skills, but on the job, they are a force to be reckoned with; driven, focused and relentless in their desire to catch the bad guys. And like Doyle’s obsession with “the Frenchman” in Friedkin’s film, Regan’s pursuit of his quarry becomes his raison d’etre; all else falls by the wayside.

Most significantly, both characters see themselves as working-class heroes of a sort. The criminals they seek to take down are living high off their ill-begotten gains; they are cleverly elusive, yet so confident in their abilities to cover their tracks that they seem to take perverse pleasure in taunting their pursuers. This is film noir as class warfare. Or, this could just be a well-made cops and robbers flick with cool chase scenes.

Blu-ray reissue: To Catch a Thief ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2012)

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To Catch a Thief – MGM Blu-ray

This is one of those Hitchcock films that’s more about the romance, scenery and clever repartee than the chills and thrills, but that makes it no less entertaining. Cary Grant is “retired” cat burglar John Robie, an American ex-pat and former Resistance fighter living on the French Riviera. A string of high-end jewel thefts (resembling his M.O.) put the police on Robie’s back and raise the ire of some of his old war buddies. As Robie tries to clear his name and find the real culprit, his life becomes more complicated when a love interest enters the picture (Grace Kelly). To be sure, it’s fairly lightweight Hitchcock, but holds up well to repeated viewings, thanks to the  chemistry between Grant and Kelly, intoxicating location filming and the delightful supporting performances (particularly from Jessie Royce Landis, as Kelly’s mother). The witty, urbane screenplay is by John Michael Hayes (who also scripted Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry and the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much remake). MGM’s Blu-ray transfer is sparkling, doing justice to Robert Burks’ colorful, Oscar-winning cinematography.

SIFF 2012: Robot and Frank **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2012)

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Robot and Frank, a lightweight crowd pleaser from first-time director Jake Schreier, opens with a screen crawl informing us that it’s “the near future” (code for “we’re not budgeted for CGI, so you’ll have to take our word for it”). The story centers on an aging ex-cat burglar named Frank (Frank Langella). Concerned about Frank’s increasing forgetfulness, his son presents him with a “caregiver” robot. Initially, Frank reacts with crankiness and hostility toward his metallic Man Friday (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) but warms up considerably after he gleans that the robot is a wiz at picking locks and cracking safes. You can likely guess what happens next (think Going in Style meets the classic Ray Bradbury-penned Twilight Zone episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”). Not exactly groundbreaking sci-fi (the A-I theme is pretty dusty) but buoyed considerably by Christopher Ford’s affable screenplay, Langella’s engaging performance and the always-welcome presence of Susan Sarandon.

Whoa, Lopakhin: Henry’s Crime ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 30, 2011)

Keanu Reeves does Chekhov? No, I’m not pitching an idea for an SNL sketch. After all, he has done Shakespeare (in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing, Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and played the lead in a stage version of Hamlet)-so is it such a stretch to see him sporting a goatee and a waistcoat in The Cherry Orchard?

In the quirky indie heist caper Henry’s Crime, he plays a guy who takes a role in a Chekhov play, even though his character is not an actor. I hear you-“Typecasting?” I know that Reeves has his share of detractors, perennially chagrined by his unique ability to remain completely motionless and expressionless for two hours at a stretch. But I have a theory-although his characters appear wooden, they still enjoy a rich” inner life” (you know…like Pinocchio).

One assumes that Henry (Reeves) has some kind of inner life. He seems a likable, easy-going fellow, if a bit…inscrutable. Maybe it’s his job. Working the graveyard shift at a N.Y. Thruway tollbooth would put anybody in semi-comatose state. Nothing fazes the agreeable yet impassive Henry, one way or the other-although he does display a slight twitch when, one morning at breakfast, his wife (Judy Greer) broaches the subject of the couple having a child.

We get the impression that Henry would prefer to be anywhere else but there, at that moment, having that particular conversation. What’s going on? Is this a troubled marriage? Does he love his wife? Is this cipher of a man internally harboring primal doubts? Or…is he suffering from a sudden attack of gas? There’s no way of discerning.

Fate intervenes, when an old high school chum named Eddie (Fisher Stevens) shows up on his doorstep, with a drunken cohort in tow. Both men are dubiously outfitted for baseball. Eddie wants to know if Henry can give them a ride to their “game”.  Nothing about this questionable scenario seems to raise red flags for Henry. Even Eddie’s request to stop at the bank “on the way” fails to elicit a raised eyebrow from Henry. Needless to say, the heist goes awry, Henry’s car stalls, his “friends” flee, and guess who ends up holding the bag?

Henry doesn’t rat and takes the fall. At this point, one might surmise that Henry is either some kind of transcendent Zen master…or a clueless moron (not unlike the protagonist of Forrest Gump or Chance the gardener in Being There). Ah, but our little wooden boy is about to meet his Geppetto: Veteran con man Max (James Caan).

Max is one of those oddballs who actually “likes” prison-which is why he has been sabotaging his own parole hearings, so as to continue living on the state’s dime. He becomes a mentor/father figure to Henry, who takes it to heart when Max advises him that he needs to find a Dream, and then pursue it. So what is Henry’s epiphany? Since he’s already done the time, he might as well now do the crime.

Henry gets out of the pen, discovers that his wife has remarried to one of the creeps who set him up, and foments a plan to rob the bank that he originally had no intention of robbing in the first place. While casing the scene, he Meets Cute with an actress (Vera Farmiga) who is working at the  theater next door to the bank. Hence,  the plot thickens, getting us to that part where Keanu does Chekhov.

There’s a little déjà vu running through this film (the second effort from 44 Inch Chest director Malcolm Venville). Sacha Gervasi and David White’s script may have been “inspired” by some vintage heist flicks; specifically, Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 comedy The Ladykillers, and Lloyd Bacon’s Larceny, Inc. from 1942 (essentially remade by Woody Allen as Small Time Crooks). While the film has classic screwball tropes, it lacks the  pace of Lubitsch or Sturges.

That said, I still found Venville’s film  engaging enough. I was reminded of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66; in addition to sharing its filming location, this is another low-key comedy with oddly endearing characters that “sneaks up” on you, especially once you realize how sweet it really is. And there’s no crime in that, is there?

Wheel men don’t eat quiche: Drive ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  September 24, 2011)

Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.

-Tsunetomo Yamamoto, from the Hagakure

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that a man…a real man…has gotta adhere to a Code. Preferably a “warrior” code of some sort. Not that I claim to lead any kind of Samurai-inspired lifestyle; if someone were to ask me what code I live by, my reflexive answer would likely be “206”. It used to be “907” when I lived in Alaska. Did you know that the biggest state in the union only has one area code? So technically, all Alaskans live by the same code. But I digress.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, “code”. Steve McQueen…there was a guy who specialized in playing characters who lived by a code; he also brought a sense of Zen cool to the screen. There were others, like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood (before he began co-starring with orangutans). But McQueen (pardon the vernacular) was “the shit”.

Now, when one thinks of film directors whose canons abound with such characters, Jean-Pierre Melville springs to mind. Insular and taciturn, the typical Melville protagonist may be a criminal, but he is a decidedly disciplined and principled one. In Melville’s universe, honor among thieves is not an oxymoron.

One prime example is Jef the hit man, a cool customer played with steely detachment by Alain Delon, in Melville’s 1967 film, Le Samourai. Although it is  relatively static  by today’s “action thriller” standards, it has influenced a number of  film makers (John Woo and Quentin Tarantino have worshiped at its altar).

A direct descendant is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), a spare and hard-boiled neo-noir about a professional getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal) who plays cat-and-mouse with an obsessed cop out to nail him (Bruce Dern) and a dissatisfied customer who is now out to kill him. “Spare” would also be a good word to describe O’Neal’s character (billed in the credits simply as: The Driver), who utters but 350 words of dialog in the entire film.

And now, in 2011, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (channeling Melville by way of Hill’s aforementioned film) and leading man Ryan Gosling (channeling Delon’s character by way of McQueen) have teamed up on a noirish action thriller called Drive.

Gosling (“Driver”) is a Hollywood stuntman by day, wheelman-for-hire by night. Not unlike O’Neal’s Driver, he is a bit picky regarding who he will work with, and has a Set of Rules that must be strictly adhered to. “I give you a five-minute window,” he tells his clients, “anything happens in those five minutes and I’m yours, no matter what.” Outside of that time window, the customer is forewarned that he is on his own. “I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive.” As for those who are tardy? There’s no ride home. Get in, get out, or you’re left holding the bag.

Yes, he’s very strict. But it’s a display of good business acumen; particularly in a “business” where a slight misstep can cost you years of your life, rotting in a prison cell. So far, by sticking with his “code” of professional discipline, Driver has managed to keep his moonlighting gig off the radar and maintain his double life with relative ease. However, the Fickle Finger of Fate is about to dip into both his personal and professional life.

On the professional side, his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a retired stuntman and mechanic who throws Driver a little work on the side at his auto repair shop, has approached a shady acquaintance, an ex-film producer turned loan shark (Albert Brooks) and his mobster partner (Ron Perlman) to invest in a customized race car. Shannon envisions Driver, with his formidable skills, as a potential money-making champ on the track. Not a bad idea, but these are not the kind of guys who are likely to just write off a bad investment. These are not nice men, period.

On the personal side, Driver is developing a strong attraction to a pretty neighbor (Carey Mulligan), a prison widow with a young son. The feeling is mutual, but news arrives that hubby (Oscar Isaac) has earned an early release. While he is disappointed, Driver still continues to be a good neighbor and spend quality time with her son (you know, the code). When the safety of mother and son is threatened by her husband’s prison “creditors” after his release, Driver warily offers to help him pull off a debt-settling job.

What his film may lack in original plot ideas (Hossein Amin adapted the screenplay from a book by James Sallis) is amply compensated by Refn’s stylish execution and his leading man’s charismatic performance. Paradoxically (in true McQueen fashion) it is technically more of a non-performance; Gosling is not quite all there, yet he remains wholly present. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the film is Albert Brooks, whose quietly menacing turn as a mean, spiteful, razor-toting viper goes against type.

This is the most atmospheric L.A. noir since Michael Mann’s Collateral (which now that I think about it, is another film that has direct lineage back to Le Samourai). In purely cinematic terms, I think Refn proves himself to be on a par with modern noir masters like Mann, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. He was smart to enlist cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who is no stranger to the genre (The Usual Suspects, Blood and Wine, Apt Pupil, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). The action sequences are slickly done and quite exciting (although it turns out Gosling didn’t go 100% “McQueen” on us; stunt driver Jeremy Fry is his double).

The pulsing synth-pop score (by Cliff Martinez) is very retro-80s (the Fairlight lives!). A caveat: while this film is artfully made, it does contain several shocking scenes of brutal violence,  potentially off-putting for the squeamish. That being said, if you fancy yourself a connoisseur of fine noirs and pure cinema, I would recommend that you plunge recklessly into this film. And do not think about victory or defeat. By doing this…you could awaken from your dreams.