The Film: 5/5
In the city of Los Angeles, when you plan on committing a high-stakes robbery that requires a surefire escape plan, you get the best wheelman in the city - the Driver (Ryan O'Neal). The Driver is a man of few words, and those words carry the power to reduce the most hardened crooks to whimpering infants, but when he's behind the wheel of any functioning automobile there is nothing he can't do. In the words of his greatest adversary the Driver is "the cowboy that's never been caught", but the Detective (Bruce Dern) plans on putting him away for fifteen years. To do this the dedicated man of the law will have to bend the rules a little by getting an inept supermarket stick-up man (Joseph Walsh) to hire the Driver to transport his gang on a bank job in exchange for full immunity, which the cop doesn't exactly have the legal authority to dole out. The robbery doesn't go according to plan and when the criminal attempts to betray both the Driver and the Detective suddenly the Driver is in possession of $200,000 in cold hard cash and the streets of L.A. start getting lined with expired human litter. The Driver and the Detective are now locked into playing a game where the only optimistic outcome for either man is getting to breathe another day, and caught in the middle are the Driver's loyal-to-a-fault business connection (Ronee Blakley) and a mysterious woman (Isabelle Adjani) who helped the Driver out once and is powerless to escape a world she never wanted to be a part of.
In the parlance of the publishing industry Walter Hill's sophomore stint in the director's chair The Driver is what you might call a "page turner". From the opening images to the sensational climatic chase that leads to a well-timed exchange between the two main characters, The Driver is unbeatable as a smart and exhilarating crime drama. Based on his own screenplay, Hill lays out his streamlined plot and tells it in the simplest of language, allowing action and visuals to chiefly carry the narrative. The dialogue is terse, direct, and wastes little time with perfunctory exposition. The characters are defined through action and emotion, the latter of which this movie is practically barren. Jean-Pierre Melville's classic 1967 gangster drama Le Samourai is an acknowledged influence on The Driver, but the swift crime novels penned by Donald Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark starring his iconic professional thief Parker can also be seen as critical in the creation of Hill's titular getaway man, played to detached perfection by the undervalued Ryan O'Neal. Long seen as a chick flick softy, O'Neal has struggled throughout his long career in film and television to be seen as a real actor who could hold us own against better-regarded performers and carry tough material with relative ease. Before watching The Driver for the first time I never would have thought he would make a credible career heavy, but O'Neal really shines in a rare performance of quiet power. He takes his typical bland passivity and turns into one of his character's main strengths.
The Driver's supposed lack of passion in his work is contrasted to the extreme by Bruce Dern's overzealous Detective. The cop has admiration for the Driver to a certain degree ("I respect a man that's good at what he does."), but he reasons that sooner or later he'll have to be brought to justice. Catching the Driver in the act - something that the police never seen able to accomplish - involves the Detective making backroom deals with scummy lowlife crooks and violating countless laws. He's a damn good cop, just not a very good person. Much like Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, once the Detective sets out his self-righteous mission he will not be deterred by any person or law that dares get in his way. Who better for that role than the mighty Dern? When you need an actor to personify a cool facade slowly cracking to reveal an engine of pure insanity and destruction but still managing to look tip top in a three-piece suit, then Dern is your man. He's amazingly capable of exuding confidence, arrogance, authority, and a maniacal thrill for the hunt all at the same time. Instead of reading his dialogue in the flat monotone of a Jack Webb wannabe, Dern savors each line and speaks them as if being a cop was a performance piece without end. There is no better opponent for the Driver than Dern's seasoned but morally compromised police detective. They are truly one of the silver screen's finest match-ups of anti-hero and adversary. In a less-inspired, by-the-numbers action flick Dern's character would be the shining paragon of virtue and O'Neal the soulless villain. Funny how the dynamic changes when the story is moved closer to reality.
The Driver marked the American film debut of the lovely French actress Isabelle Adjani - though she had previously appeared in Roman Polanski's thriller The Tenant, which was presented in English and financed and distributed by Paramount Pictures, that film was shot in Paris - in the role of the woman known only in the credits as the Player. We are never given too much information about her character's past (which can be said for every character for that matter) but Hill provides us with just enough to understand that she is out for her own survival and to rectify mistakes she has made in regards to people she thought she could trust. That tells us everything we need to know about the Player; it makes no difference where she was born, who her parents were, and what her favorite scent of perfume is. Adjani is quite adept when it comes to digging deep into sketchily-defined mystery women and revealing their inner vulnerabilities and the jaded worldliness that keeps them alive and in the game. Ronee Blakley's scant scenes as the Driver's business manager (in a sense) bestow upon us a person who represents the one actual friend our monosyllabic lead has in this cold and lonely world. The jaded outlook on life Blakley imbues in her dialogue and interactions with O'Neal's character speak volumes where longer scenes would fail.
The rest of the supporting cast is filled out with neat little turns from Joseph Walsh (Poltergeist), Rudy Ramos (Beverly Hills Cop II), and Frank Bruno as the low-level thieves angling to set the Driver up for a big fall. Professional stuntman and actor Bob Minor (Coffy) appears in the opening sequence as part of the gang the Driver must spirit to freedom after a casino hold-up. Best of all is character acting deity Matt Clark (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Back to the Future Part III) as a younger cop who gets assigned to the Detective's detail and clashes with him constantly over his unorthodox methods. Clark and Dern have a marvelous dueling chemistry that adds some desperately-craved humor to the downbeat tone of the film and demonstrates that there is about as much honor among cops as there is among thieves.
For his second feature as director, Hill once again re-teamed with cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop, the brilliant photographic genius who not only shot his debut Hard Times but also timeless classics as Lonely Are the Brave, the original Pink Panther, John Boorman's Point Blank, and the Oscar-nominated They Shoot Horses, Don't They? prior to lensing The Driver. Lathrop's talent truly comes alive when night falls on the city of Los Angeles and the city becomes a candy land of twinkling street lights and empty buildings decorated with darkened windows that betray secrets. This is the perfect field of battle for the Driver to take on the corrupted machinations of the Detective. I wouldn't classify The Driver as a car chase movie per se, but when a chase kicks into gear Hill and Lathrop make sure the audience's collective ass is in the front seat for all of the excitement. There are automotive pursuits in this film that outclass the likes of Bullitt, To Live & Die in L.A., and Ronin (all magnificent movies BTW), but Walter Hill behind the camera you get to feel every acceleration, every crunch of Detroit steel impacting, and you can practically feel the vibration set off by the squealing brake pads and smell the boiling motor oil. I only wish the director and Lathrop (who passed away in 1995) had gotten the chance to work together more after this movie. The music score by composer Michael Small (The Parallax View, Marathon) provides an excellent accompaniment to the on-screen action by underscoring it with brooding, jazzy sounds rather than anything that can call too much attention to itself. The editing by Tina Hirsch (Death Race 2000) and Robert K. Lambert (House of 1000 Corpses, I Heart Huckabees) is the textbook definition of precision, with each scene stripped to its bare essentials and powering forth to deliver maximum excitement from a minimum of resources.
Wow. Just....holy....wow. I have memories of first seeing The Driver on Fox Movie Channel one lazy afternoon and then briefly owning it on DVD eight years ago, but the prints used for television broadcast and previous home video incarnations have never looked as great as Twilight Time's Blu-ray restoration does. Remastered in shimmering 1080p high-definition and presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, The Driver truly comes alive. First off, there is grain present in the transfer but it is a very small amount that's just enough to keep it looking like a movie, so it serves a higher purpose. Feel free to put the volume up as high as you can stand it because the English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track goes far beyond being a top-notch sound mix. Everything is perfectly balanced on this track, with the minimalist dialogue never becoming overwhelmed by the car engines that sound like dragon roars and the powerful gunfire noises that would be memorably put to use by Michael Mann for his 1995 crime drama Heat. This is the next best thing to having a full-on 5.1 audio track. English subtitles are also included.
The only new extra provided by Twilight Time is an isolated audio track that presents Michael Small's score in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. It sounds incredible when played separate from the rest of the movie's sound mix, but The Driver really isn't much without it. The other extras are ported over from the 2005 Fox DVD: an alternate opening (3 minutes) and a theatrical trailer (2 minutes). The alternate opening is interesting as isn't really a proper beginning to the story but rather a pair of unrelated deleted scenes that would have gotten the movie off to an awkward had they remained in the final cut. This sequence - which Hill was reportedly ordered to film by Fox in order to better clarify the plot - features the only interaction between Blakley and Adjani's characters and it spoiled a later plot twist. That scene is followed by one where Matt Clark's unnamed cop under the command of Dern's hard-boiled Detective meets his new boss and gets a quick and unforgiving lesson in police work that should have remained in the film somewhere: "When you're talking you're not thinking. Never talk, unless you have to."
Julie Kirgo's conventional booklet of informative liner notes is included inside the Blu-ray case. Reading them made me long for a day when a company like Arrow or Second Sight will get the rights to The Driver and give it a better selection of supplements.
I wouldn't be hard-pressed to call Walter Hill's brilliant second feature as director a masterpiece, because as the work of a gifted cinematic stylist in command of his craft even before he stepped behind the camera for the first time it is impossible to resist. The Driver is cool, exciting, and possesses a gentle sort of knowing humor with a talented cast to elevate the material into something special and a few of the greatest car chases ever put on film. The movie has never looked or sounded better on home video and though no new substantial bonus features were included at least we get a wonderful isolated score track and the extras from the previous Region 1 DVD. That'll do for now. Highly recommended.