The Driver breaks your face and leaves your ass in the dust
Ryan O’Neal plays the title character, a freelance getaway driver who gets his assignments through the Connection (played by Ronee Blakley in a great, but limited role). His latest job is a bank heist set up by an arrogant Detective played by Bruce Dern, obsessed with capturing the elusive Driver. The Detective has had no luck in bringing the Driver down and his efforts are wasted on an eyewitness to a casino robbery that opens the film, played by the crazy pretty Isabelle Adjani (credited as The Player). The Driver has pledged hush money to the Player to keep her mouth shut and throw the cops off his trail. His promise hinges on the latest score and she’s into him enough to play along.
In a desperate attempt to get his man once and for all, the Detective cuts a deal with a recently picked up armed supermarket thief (known as Glasses, played by Joseph Walsh) and his three-man gang in exchange for knocking off the bank and hiring the Driver. The Driver resists at first, distrusting their abilities and motives, but eventually ups his fee on the condition that he drive only two of them. Glasses turns the table on the cops and the Driver, taking out one of his own crew and trying to split with the bank’s $200K. But the Driver is too smart and puts a bullet in Glasses before he can return the favor. With the money in tow and a red Chevy pick-up, the Driver looks to the Connection to sell the take at a fraction, and sets up a money exchange using lockers at the train terminal. The last of the crew – Teeth, played by Rudy Ramos – is hot after the Driver for the money, killing the Connection in cold blood after she clues him in. The Driver out duels Teeth’s Firebird Trans Am and then disposes of him too. Now, with no one else to outrun except the Detective, the Driver looks to make the exchange with the Player’s help. The locker keys are traded and the Detective tracks down the money case, waiting for the Driver at the train station to collect his end. To their surprise, there’s no cash in the locker. The Detective has nothing to pin on the Driver and he walks.
Walter Hill writes and directs with the same rawness he showed in his debut film Hard Times (1975) and later in The Warriors (1979). He carried his knack for slick action into the ‘80s with more mainstream hits like 48 Hrs. (1982) and Red Heat (1988). Hill knows cops and robbers, initially breaking through with his sparkling 1972 screenplay adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, directed by Sam Peckinpah (badly remade in 1994).
The Driver is Hill’s most visceral film, stripped down to basic plot elements and characterizations. The characters are labeled rather than named. The locations are non-descript. The night exteriors have a dreamy detached quality. The cops carry out interrogations in a dive bar complete with flashing neon, hold lineups in a back alley, and move around town in some mobile command center that looks like a bread delivery truck. By design, Hill is trying to create an urban Western. The exchange man wears pointed boots and a bolo tie. The script hits you over the head with phrases like “cowboy desperado” and “shooters,” and Hill’s man-with-no-name speaks with the sparseness and steely cool look of Eastwood’s best. But the movie ultimately works when it doesn’t strive for anything more than what’s before our eyes – an awesome car flick anchored by A-plus acting talent.
The opening car chase is meant to showcase the Driver’s ability and demeanor. The smoking wheels and stomach-busting turns when he speeds away from the casino do nothing to change his stone expression. His gun-toting passengers in ski masks are equal parts impressed and scared to death. The Driver is all business, demanding punctuality and detail, preferring not to work with “second raters.” He can turn any vehicle into a road rocket, including a paunchy Chevy farm truck. His brevity of dialogue throughout the film is a testament to his confidence. When Glasses questions his skills, the Driver simply replies, “Get in.” He then proceeds to destroy the burnt orange Mercedes in a queasy drive through an underground parking lot, using concrete pillars to pick off its fenders, side mirrors and door with precision.
The Detective is the Driver’s opposite. A bully who talks too much. He tells everyone how great he is, but can’t do anything to back it up. His bumbling and tired cracks draw from the most hack police films you can think of. He tosses hot coffee on the Driver’s hands, makes veiled threats at his partners and eyewitness, and weakly holds Glasses off the side of a roof. And when he thinks he’s concocted a master plan to catch his prey, he can only manage a sloppy foot chase on a train and gets shafted in the end.
O’Neal is an unlikely choice for a ‘70s crime lead. He’s blonde and good-looking. Made in Hollywood. But he goes far in one of his few grown-up roles of the decade. A movie star who doesn’t get to say a whole lot. There are no love scenes and hardly any close-ups. The camera doesn’t sex him up. O’Neal worked with a no nonsense director in a no nonsense film in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). When trusted here by Hill, he shines again.
Before the movies, O’Neal was a Golden Gloves boxer, compiling an amateur record of 18-4 with thirteen knockouts. Maybe he reached back into his fighting days to toughen up for the role, especially in the best scene that takes place about midway through the film. The Driver is visited by Teeth after refusing to take the bank job. Teeth pulls a gun on him, thinking that pointing a barrel will change his mind. The Driver calmly smacks Teeth around, knocking him down the stairs of his apartment complex. The Driver knows that they need him. That no one else can do what he does. The chances Teeth squeezes the trigger are slim to none. O’Neal deftly conveys through his gladiator stance and measured tone that the Driver calls the shots. Coming heavy at him won’t work. You can’t forget his soft act in Love Story (1970), or What’s Up, Doc? (1972), but watching O’Neal’s anti-hero in straight up street shit is refreshing.
The coolest casting pick is Bruce Dern, who bleeds ‘70s Vietnam and glassy eye nihilism. He seems to always carry that thin-lipped grin, feigning superiority even when Adjani’s character plainly tells him, “I just don’t like you.” The cadence in his line delivery straddles buffoonery, and his crossed arms and cocked back chin invite someone to punch him in the face. How can this guy beat the Driver? He can’t, but we love to watch him try. There’s a reason why Dern has been working consistently since 1960.
Of course, the other stars of the movie are the incredible stunt driving, dynamite editing, and Philip Lathrop’s cinematography. They point us where we need to be during the film’s amazing car chases, which rank right up there with Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and Ronin (1998). We feel every screech, near miss and metal crush. In moments when the rubber’s not burning during the final chase, the camera crawls just off the hood of the cars as they creep and inch their way around corners inside the warehouse. And don’t get it twisted. There’s no computer junk here. These are real bodies behind the wheels of real cars. And, oh yeah, go ahead and watch another blonde Ryan in 2011’s excellent Drive directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and tell me what you think about.
Hill does well to present the formula for a Western. He gives us the quiet quick-draw in the Driver and the rule-bending lawman in the Detective. But the statement he makes is one of egoism not in line with classic cowboys. The Driver is not protecting anyone but himself. There’s no innocently wronged rancher or missing townsfolk here. And the Detective’s only goal is to make the collar. The game is one of winners and losers, and it’s very clear who wins this time.
Director: Walter Hill
Screenplay: Walter Hill
Producer: Lawrence Gordon
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, Joseph Walsh, Rudy Ramos, Ronee Blakley and Isabelle Adjani
Release Date: 1978
Buy the DVD here. I re-watched my dusty VHS copy, picked fresh off the shelf at Tower Records about fifteen years ago.