20th Century Fox
Produced by Lawrence Gordon
Written And Directed by Walter Hill
Some time back I wrote of review of the existential car chase thriller “Vanishing Point” and I received an email from a gentleman (at least I think it’s a gentleman…you can’t always tell just by email addresses) who informed me that he had seen the movie on my recommendation and found it pretentious and pointless and suggested that I watch and review what he considered to be a much better movie revolving around car chases: Walter Hill’s 1978 crime thriller THE DRIVER I vaguely remember seeing THE DRIVER years ago at 42end Street. This was back in the day when you could see three movies for 5 bucks and frankly, I remember the other two movies much better but thanks to The Fox Movie Channel I had a chance to see it again recently. Maybe “Vanishing Point” is pretentious but THE DRIVER takes pretentiousness to an almost Zen-like level to the point where the characters don’t even have names. They are just identified by what they are and what they do.
The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) is an undisputed professional master of driving getaway cars. He does not participate in the actual robbery. He drives and that’s all. He commands a flat fee of $10,000 up front and 15% of the take. And he’s worth it because he guarantees that you won’t get caught. His driving abilities are inhumanly unnerving and he never displays any emotion at all. The man’s a driving machine. His nemesis is The Detective (Bruce Dern) who badly wants to catch The Driver. So obsessed is he with catching The Driver he puts his career on the line by recruiting a second-rate gang of bank robbers to hire The Driver. The Detective will ensure that the gang will rob the bank and get away then they’ll bring The Driver and the money to a spot where The Detective will be waiting to arrest The Driver, take the money and let the gang get away. Of course, the plan doesn’t work out and pretty soon everybody’s double-crossed everybody else and the gang, The Driver and The Detective are all scrambling for the half-million robbery loot while The Driver and The Detective play their own cat-and-mouse game of Catch Me If You Can. You see, The Detective has told The Driver the robbery is a set-up and he dares him to pull it off and get away. The Driver takes the challenge and the game’s afoot…or awheel, I suppose is a better phrase in this case.
And that’s there is all, folks. That is all the movie is about. THE DRIVER is probably the most stripped down movie I’ve ever seen. There’s no characterizations, no background information about anybody given, No extra characters, no dialog exchanged that does not relate directly to the plot, no flashbacks, no nothing except for what is happening right at the moment. In fact, there isn’t that much dialog. Supposedly Ryan O’Neal only speaks 350 words in the whole movie and I think that’s stretching it. Bruce Dern has most the dialog as The Detective and he’s really the main character in this thing as he has motivations and desires that we can understand and even though he’s a bit of a bastard at least he’s a human bastard. Ryan O’Neal’s Driver is such an emotionless humanoid that we never understand why he does what he does. He doesn’t seem to enjoy his work and we never see what he does with the money he makes. He wears the same clothes throughout the movie and lives in a cheap hotel. He only has three relationships: The Connection (Ronee Blakely) who sets up his jobs, The Player (Isabelle Adjani) a professional gambler who deliberately misidentifies The Driver in a police line-up, enabling him to avoid arrest and his pocket transistor radio.
There’s no point in talking about the performances in this one because outside of Bruce Dern’s, there are none. This movie is all about plot and Walter Hill, who wrote and directed THE DRIVER cares about nothing else. This movie is nowhere as good as some others he’s done such as the “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire” which are both classics and I’d advise anybody to Netflix “The Long Riders” “Johnny Handsome” or “Extreme Prejudice” before this one.
Even the car chase scenes aren’t all that exciting but I liked them a lot because back then when movies did car chases you knew that some fool was actually doing the driving and when a car flipped over, it was because a trained and experience stuntman was doing it and it added a sense of realism. For sheer exhilaration, none of the car chases in THE DRIVER don’t match anything done today, true, but it works for this movie because it gives it a gritty realism. None of the driving stunts done here don’t seem like anything that couldn’t be done in real life and I liked that. After all, The Driver is supposed to be trying to get away from the cops, not showing off how many aerial acrobatics he can do. The whole movie has a realistic feel to it that is probably the movie’s greatest strength. Nobody here takes a whole clip of .45 slugs in the chest then drags himself or herself half a mile before expiring. You get shot and you fall over dead. End of story. There’s no meaningless romance between The Driver and the two women he knows just to have a romantic subplot. These people are involved in a dirty, dangerous business and they conduct themselves accordingly.
There is one really cool scene where The Driver is asked to demonstrate his skill and he does so by proceeding to demolish a car while he and three passengers are inside. They climb out completely unharmed but the car is a wreck and still able to run. But that comes halfway through the movie and it’s over much too soon.
So should you see THE DRIVER? I can think of a couple of reasons why you might want to: if you’re a Walter Hill fan like me, you’ll want to check out this early work of his. Hill is an infuriating hit-or-miss director. When he’s good, he’s very good but when he’s bad he’s even worse and THE DRIVER is an example of this, especially in the last five minutes of the movie when you’ll probably be screaming at the screen; “That’s IT????” even as the credits are rolling. If you like Bruce Dern you’ll also enjoy seeing him in this one as he really doesn’t get to play a cop that often but when he does, he makes the most of it. If you like him as a cop here, check out “The Laughing Policeman”.
But as for THE DRIVER if you’re at all curious by all means check it out. But if you’re not, don’t worry, you won’t be missing a thing.