Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaa 18 cert, gen release, 100 min

Fancy a ride in a mean, mean machine? This knockout thriller is for you, writes DONALD CLARKE

PONDER THE origins of Nicolas Winding Refn’s first-class existentialist thriller for too long and you could risk driving straight up your own exhaust pipe. The most obvious model is Walter Hill’s austere 1978 drama The Driver,which in turn was, of course, greatly enamoured of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï.

Yes, that’s probably the root of it all. Just look at Ryan Gosling’s getaway driver moping about his seedy flat. If anybody is fit to pull himself into Alain Delon’s neat shoes it is probably the suddenly ubiquitous Mr G. But hang on a minute. Doesn’t Le Samouraï– that title alone – incline towards classic Japanese cinema? Ooo, let me out. I’m feeling a bit carsick.

In interviews, Refn further confuses matters by bringing up To Live and Die in LA, but, for all the swirl of influences, Driveremains very much its own turbo-charged beast.

The lone warrior who defies his own austere rules by giving in to affection, is, let’s be honest, an indestructible figure in both high and low culture. Discovering a screaming-pink ghost of the 1980s in contemporary LA, Refn, on a roll after the terrific Bronsonand the singular Valhalla Rising, has kicked the cliché back into roaring good health.

This unashamedly unhurried film begins as it doesn’t mean to go on – with a stirring, tightly disciplined car chase. Like Neil McCauley in Michael Mann’s Heat, Gosling’s protagonist (only ever referred to as “the Driver”) is a slave to criminal procedure. If his clients take a second longer than five minutes to rob their target he drives away. On this occasion they emerge on time and, moving to a precise geometry, he negotiates them quickly, but cautiously, towards safety.

Refn has peopled his mean streets with a smashing array of our era’s most nuanced actors. Bryan Cranston plays the Driver’s sweet, easily led boss. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman turn up as two Jewish hoodlums, even less charming than they look, who are seeking to secure their hold on the west-coast underground. And Carey Mulligan plays the Driver’s new next-door neighbour.

Uh oh! What was it Baloo said of the girl child at the end of The Jungle Book? “Stay away from them, they’re nothing but trouble.” Though untrustworthy business partners may break the average existentialist hoodlum’s kneecaps, only a surrender to emotion can bring about absolute downfall.

Sure enough, against his better judgement, the Driver makes friends with the woman and her amiable young son. When her husband gets out of jail, forgetting everything he learnt at geezer school, the Driver agrees to help the loser on “one last job”. Well, it couldwork out.

There is a fair degree of plot in Drive, but events still progress at a suspiciously gentle pace. Decked out in bordello reds and corduroy browns, the film seems reluctant to hit the throttle for fear of what it might encounter at journey’s end.

Rightly so. Refn is a master at, in a few sly frames, swivelling the action away from brooding tension towards tendon-snapping violence. He’s not shy about inviting his audience to savour the inappropriate pleasure of hearing an imaginary bone being broken or watching an artificial eye being gouged.

The end result is, admittedly, something of an echoing shell. As with Le Samouraï, Refn’s film invites the viewer to revel in blankness and – for 90 minutes at least — regard his or her own domestic values with a degree of haughty disdain.

Now that we’re so rarely allowed a good western, Drivewill have to stand as the era’s signature tribute to the renegade spirit. As brute force art films go, it’s very hard to beat.