Sunday, August 26, 2007

My Favorite Cheese-Eatin' Dick Monkey

About as close to a rock-'em-sock-'em Hong Kong action movie that I've ever seen in an American production, 1997's DRIVE is violent, fast-moving and often witty fun. In fact, I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb when I say it may well be the greatest American martial-arts film ever made. So why haven't you heard of it? The producers took it away from its director, Steve Wang, cut several minutes out of it (mostly dialogue, but the fate of at least one major supporting character hit the cutting room floor), and bypassed a theatrical release, dumping it straight to cable, VHS and DVD in 1998. I have seen both the 99-minute U.S. version and Wang's longer original cut, and, while both are wonderful films, the perfect version would be somewhere in between length-wise and utilize the more conventional score that Wang commissioned.

DRIVE is apparently set in the near future and stars Mark Dacascos (BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF) as Toby Wong, a Chinese man running from his former employers in Hong Kong, the Leung Corporation, which implanted a "bio-engine" into his chest which gives him enhanced speed, strength and fighting ability. However, he doesn't want it--he was an unwilling experiment--and is journeying to Los Angeles to sell the implant to Leung's main competitor. On Toby's trail are Leung's squad of assassins, led by Vic Madison (John Pyper-Ferguson, memorable as a comic heavy on THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR.), who are assigned to stop him from reaching L.A. without killing him, since their employer wants the bio-engine in one piece. After escaping a pair of early attacks in San Francisco, Toby makes the unlikely acquaintance of Malik Brody (A DIFFERENT WORLD's Kadeem Hardison), a divorced, unemployed songwriter who would rather be almost anywhere but handcuffed to a kung-fu-fighting stranger while bullets, rockets and explosions whiz past his head.

Don't worry too much about the story, since what are important here are the startling fight sequences staged by Wang and his stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto's Alpha Stunt team. Hardly a few minutes ever go by without Dacascos and Hardison running into trouble, setting the stage for a series of well-executed martial-arts battles, including one pitting Dacascos against several guys armed with cattle prods and another set in a tacky neon desert bar with an outer space theme, complete with giant rocket ship. So much energy was spent on DRIVE that it's a shame it never received a theatrical release in the United States, premiering on HBO and later on home video. Although it cost only around $4 million, the miniatures and pyrotechnics are skillfully rendered, and the non-stop action is a certain crowd-pleaser.

Dacascos does most of his acting with his feet and fists, but he's a solid enough leading man, while Hardison, at first difficult to take as a typical wisecracking, loudmouthed comic-relief black sidekick, grows on you by the end, where he proves he can pull his own weight. Pyper-Ferguson doesn't look like a fighter, but hams it up well enough to distract you from the fact that his stunt double doesn't look a lot like him. The one down note acting-wise is Brittany Murphy (DON'T SAY A WORD), who plays a brain-dead teenage nympho with the unlikely hots for Hardison. Her character isn't supposed to be retarded, which could be the only rational explanation for why Murphy performs the way she does.

Filmed as ROAD TO RUIN, DRIVE is an energetic breath of fresh air in the direct-to-video action realm, and shouldn't be overlooked just because it wasn't deemed "good" enough to play in theaters. Although I prefer the orchestral-type music that underscores Wang's original cut, I don't really mind Walter Werzowa's bouncy score in the U.S. version; the problem is that there's too much of it, and it's mixed much too loud, causing a distraction in straightforward dialogue scenes where no music is needed.

DRIVE was filmed in and around Lancaster, California by the director of THE GUYVER. Dacascos has continued to work steadily on television and in the DTV field, but one gets the sad feeling that, if DRIVE had received a proper theatrical release, it may well have been quite successful--it's too damn good to be ignored, certainly better than RUSH HOUR, which shamelessly rips it off--and led to bigger roles for him.

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