Sunday, November 26, 2017

Drive (1998)

About as close to a rock-'em-sock-'em Asian action movie as a low-budget American production can get, DRIVE is one of the greatest American martial-arts films ever made. The startling fight sequences staged by director Steve Wang (THE GUYVER) and his stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto's Alpha Stunt team are unlike any you’ve seen staged outside of Hong Kong. Presented with grace, humor, and sharp visual wit, DRIVE is a terrific film.

So why haven't you heard of it? The producers took DRIVE away from Wang in post-production, cut several minutes out of it (mostly character stuff that adds humanity to the fighting scenes), commissioned a new electronic score, and bypassed a theatrical release, dumping it straight to cable, VHS, and DVD in 1998. While both the 99-minute U.S. version and Wang's longer original 112-minute cut are wonderful films, the perfect version would be somewhere in between lengthwise and use the more conventional score that Wang commissioned.

DRIVE is set in the near future and stars Mark Dacascos (archvillain Wo Fat on the HAWAII FIVE-0 remake) 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 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.

Toby and Malik run into constant 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. Although DRIVE 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 leading man, while Hardison, at first difficult to take as a typical wisecracking, loudmouthed comic-relief sidekick, grows on you by the end, where he proves he can pull his own weight. Pyper-Ferguson hams it up well enough to distract you from the fact that his stunt double doesn't look a lot like him. Brittany Murphy (DON'T SAY A WORD) is goofy as a brain-dead teenage nympho with the unlikely name of Deliverance Bodine and the hots for Hardison.

Filmed around Lancaster, California 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.

2 comments:

Peter Collinson said...

Rented this one as a video cassette back when it was brand new, and it blew my mind. Had to watch it a couple times just to take in the action choreography.
Heard somewhere that most of the dialogue was improvised. Do you know if there's anything to that?
Always expected Dacascos to become a big star. He certainly deserved a little better than he's got.

Marty McKee said...

According to the commentary track, some dialogue was improvised, mostly by Murphy and Hardison.