AS screen romances go, the one in Drive starts out really quite sweet.

Mostly-silent lonely guy (Ryan Gosling, pictured) takes a shine to apparently solo mum in apartment next door and her young son. Except her hubby comes back from prison.

What's mostly-silent lonely guy to do? Especially when the ex-con gets in a money bind? Help him in a heist? Hey, he's a stuntman who has already moonlighted as a getaway driver. What could go wrong?

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The answer to that last question is, well, spectacular. Brutally so. It's but one outburst of nasty violence that punctuates Drive's minimalist sheen and jars you out of a happy extended game of spot-the-influence - and this is a film which owes much to the synthesised crime sagas of Michael Mann; to all those movies where a life of a crime has induced an existential crisis; to movies where it's clear the director wished he had been born decades earlier.

Like Tarantino was with 70s B-flicks, it seems Cannes-winning Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is with the 80s, whether it is with the music, the titles or the sheer downtown Los Angeles-ness of it all. You really have to wonder if the involvement of Mad Men redhead Christina Hendricks for a brief episode is because Molly Ringwald got too old in the meantime.

But this film belongs to Ryan Gosling's otherwise unnamed "Driver", who in decades past would have been played by a Clint Eastwood or a Steve McQueen. Not that this is exactly Bullitt - Gosling's wheelman prefers stealth over stickshift. That's apparent from a gripping, sharply-edited early scene which has him expertly ferrying a robbery crew away from the LAPD.

It's a sequence which shows that Drive is a unique mix in a modern crime thriller - its getaway thrills are serve chilled - and that no good will come of a videogame offshoot.

Yes, it does offer one decent proper car chase among its escapades but much of Drive is spent waiting, tensely, for the inevitable to happen and when it does, the results tend to confound expectations.

So do much of the cast. Gosling's no-name loner walks a fine line - between silent lonely guy parody and inscrutable enigma. But walk it he does, complete with a toothpick in his mouth, a silk bomber jacket on his back, and leather driving gloves keeping his hands clean.

Mulligan also impresses as the melancholy Irene, the diner waitress with the ex-con husband, who tries to thaw Gosling's cold, cold heart.

But the real villain of the piece is Albert Brooks (Nemo's dad) cast against type as a bitter former movie producer now plying darker arts.

Drive doesn't lack for performance spark but he's the tiger in the tank.

Stars: 4/5
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Casey Mulligan, Albert Brooks
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Rating: R18 (graphic violence and offensive language)
Running time: 100 mins
Verdict: Retro cool artful crime thriller

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