Fall’s action stars move at slower, steadier pace

Ryan Gosling stars in "Drive." SOURCE FILMDISTRICT
September 26, 2011

Now that the boys of summer have had their time to play in the sandbox, it's time for the men to move in and show them how it's done. While the superheroes were busy blowing up everything at breakneck speed, autumn's action stars move at a decidedly slower and steadier pace.

Of course, this means they will be completely rejected by most mainstream audiences (last week, both "Contagion" and "Drive" were beat out at the box office by a reissue of a 17-year-old cartoon ("The Lion King," now retrofitted with a $3 surcharge...I mean, in 3-D!).

Granted, you won't see the chiseled abs of "Contagion's" Matt Damon or Ryan Gosling of “Drive” through skintight spandex, but their modulated might is felt throughout their latest "action" flicks.

Perhaps an ironic title for a film not afraid to lean on its brakes, "Drive" feels as though it's of a different era. Its synth-heavy soundtrack and neon-glow title credits suggest a thriller soaking in heavy '80s cheese. But the more it follows the stoic, nameless lead (Gosling), the more "Drive" morphs into a pulpy revenge pic straight out of the '70s.

Gosling's character is a man of few words, but his focused, fiery glare speaks volumes. What little we know of him from the establishing scenes is that he's a part-time movie stuntman who moonlights as a getaway car driver. To shed another ray of light onto this dark tale would be a great disservice to what director Nicolas Winding Refn has crafted.

There are few people the main character allows to enter his orbit, but they affect him profoundly. One is his neighbor Irene (played by Carey Mulligan), a damaged damsel who is struggling to raise a young son on her own. The other is Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston), the owner of a garage in which he works. Once Shannon witnesses his young employee's automotive adroitness, he hatches a plan to get him behind the wheel of a race car. This, of course, means having to take out a loan from some sketchy businessmen (played by Ron Perlman and a riveting, against-type Albert Brooks) who go to great lentghs to insure their investment.

But "Drive” has other cylinders pumping beyond its acting. Shooting intense, prolonged close-ups, Refn splashes light from obscure angles and uses the film’s sound design with both urgency and stark silence.

While many are familiar with the talent of its leads, the real fuel of “Drive” is the Danish filmmaker who has made a host of smaller-budgeted knockouts ("Bronson," "Valhalla Rising," the "Pusher" trilogy), but who truly lands on the map here. He has crafted an unsettling modern-day film noir that will undoubtedly get traction with audiences who mistakenly passed on seeing it in the theaters.

Disaster films of old (and of late, actually), are often stages on which big-name ensembles could get their panicky freak. They could bark orders and engage in arm-flailing antics as infernos towered, vessels sank and airplanes plummeted. Those who enjoyed the histrionics of such films may be disappointed by the up-close-and-personal tack taken by director Steven Soderbergh in "Contagion."

That disappointment will be fleeting, though, if they allow themselves to get drawn into the more meditative side of disaster.

The case of "Contagion” is expansive (Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law), but its emotional core is with Matt Damon's Mitch, a Minnesota dad, and husband to the virus-carrying Paltrow. I'm giving away nothing by stating it is Paltrow's character who is the first victim, her death signifying a particularly vicious strain of something-or-other.

She, of course, is one of many who begin to fall, puzzling doctors, scientists and government agencies, as they all struggle to contain the outbreak and quell a mounting public fear.

Though "Contagion" does have a few shots of panic-stricken masses, it prefers to keep calm, narratively speaking. The facts of the transmission of this - or any - virus are startling enough, and director Soderbergh is rightfully confident that they alone can deliver the requisite chills.

It's a risky move that pays off, relying on the skills of his cast. We are spared the skin-bubbling symptoms that can plague movies about plagues, and even though it is heavy on the dialogue, it’s powerful stuff, courtesy of longtime Damon collaborator Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “The Informant!”).

His script is spare but smart and does not pander to the audience with its information. It’s a welcome panacea in a genre that usually feels the need to create action sequences of leads racing to deliver secret formulas against the clock and against nefarious government types who seek to delegate who receives the healing serum.

The result is more personal and real than most films of the genre, and aside from a few subplots that meander off the rails (Marion Cotillard’s character getting kidnapped seems especially unnecessary), Soderbergh has crafted yet another work of spare tension with a topic that is typically depicted in much grander fashion on film (his own “Traffic” immediately comes to mind; “Syriana” is another).

And, like “Drive,” “Contagion” will also garner appreciation after its paltry theatrical run, when audiences can watch it in the secluded comforts of home, where it can really get under the skin.