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Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2002

Just stick it in cruise control


Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Sabu
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Movie franchises have a way of feeding off each other. James Bond begot Austin Powers and Austin Powers begets -- what, one wonders? "Son of Fat Bastard?" "Mini Mini Me?" But the wheels in Hollywood grind exceedingly slow. How old will Austin be before the series gets around to episode 48 -- the number Yoji Yamada managed to reach in 27 years of making Tora-san movies? The producers will have to freeze Mike Myers periodically -- otherwise we'll have to endure Austin in his dotage, with teeth in who knows what unspeakable shape.

News photo
Shinichi Tsutsumi, Susumu Terajima, Masanobu Ando and Ren Osugi in "Drive"

Sabu, the actor-turned-director who made his feature debut in 1996 with "Dangan Runner," doesn't do series, but he does have a formula that he has used, with variations, in each of his five films. It's the oldest in the movies -- the comic chase, escalated to Buster Keatian heights of absurdity and leavened with drama and social commentary. But unlike Keaton, whose best films unfold with a methodical precision, Sabu has a swamp of a mind, bubbling away in a state of pop-culture chaos. Keaton, in other words, has to make room for the anything-goes aesthetic of manga, punk rock and Japanese variety shows.

His latest film, "Drive," is more of the same. But though much of the story takes place in a car, at full throttle, the film also explores the other meaning of the title: the forces, both internal and external, speeding the characters toward their individual destinies. A comedy about a bank robbery gone wrong becomes an essay on seeking release from our obsessions. What drives you? How do you take the wheel? Or how does the wheel take you?

This is a heavy thematic weight for such a slight film, and it doesn't always carry it well, going soppy in some places, silly in others. There is enough energy, provided by a talented cast, to propel "Drive" through to its lovable-misfits-in-the-sunset ending, but the film began to dissolve in my mind as soon as I left the theater, like a long, confused dream about being lost -- and chased, of course.

Asakura, a straight-arrow drug company salesman played by Sabu regular Shin'ichi Tsutsumi, marches through his days on a minute-by-minute schedule, obeying every rule, even when other drivers curse him for driving at 40 kph in a -- how stupid! -- 40-kph zone. Then one day, after he watches a pretty girl (Ko Shibasaki) endearingly mess up the simple business of buying some flowers, he is rudely interrupted by three masked bank robbers who jump in his car and order him to chase after a confederate who absconded with the loot. True to form, though, Asakura cruises along at the speed limit and stops at every red light, infuriating the robbers. (This stressful episode makes Asakura wince -- the poor sap is afflicted with excruciating headaches and today's one of his worst.)

Meanwhile, the robber of the robbers, one Mikki (Toshio Kakei), parks and strides across a landfill toward a car he intends to escape in, when he trips and drops his keys down a hole. Reaching in, he finds nothing but gets impossibly stuck, as though he's wedged his arm in solid rock. What can he do but curse his fate -- and clutch his money?

That evening, Asakura and the three robbers -- the voluble Arai (Susumu Terajima), the excitable Nishi (Ren Osugi) and the boy-band-cute Kodama (Masanobu Ando) go to a fancy restaurant to celebrate -- nothing, gloomily. There they run across Tani (Suzuki Matsuo), a slimeball who not only knows them, but guesses what they have been up to and threatens to turn them in unless they give him a cut. As Tani waltzes toward the door and the flashing lights of a patrol car, Asakura's tension headache goes into overdrive, shattering a wine glass in front of him. This improbable accident set off a chain of events that results in Tani's untimely demise -- and the robbers and Asakura making a quick exit, with the cops in hot pursuit.

Splitting off from the others, Arai runs down an alley into a drug-blasted rock singer and his blank-eyed girlfriend. A hot-tempered type who is something of a philosopher (his father was a Buddhist priest), Arai lectures the singer on the evil of drugs and ends up in a fistfight that propels him into the club and onto the stage, with the band in full wail. Grabbing a microphone, he begins to berate the crowd -- and they love it. Arai, it turns out, is a natural rapper, whose sermons are as rhythmic as they are angry. The band finds a new lead singer, Arai finds a new girlfriend (the druggie's) and the quartet is reduced to a trio.

And so it goes, with each member of the gang learning, in the course of a long, busy night, that there is more to life than stolen money. And Asakura? He recalls his equally rigid parents, who committed suicide when he was a boy and left him emotionally paralyzed. Was their way, he starts to wonder, the only way? Meanwhile, other strange characters intrude themselves on this journey of self-discovery, including the ghost of Asakura's samurai ancestor, who has issues of his own -- and takes out his frustrations on the helpless Mikki.

"Drive" doesn't go into these or any other issues in any depth, preferring the shorthand of cliches, served up both straight and with a dash of irony. Sabu does get the best out of his actors, though. As Asakura, Tsutsumi gives a painfully realistic impression of headache misery (and I am a man who knows headaches). The ever-reliable Osugi and Terajima have played similar roles so often that they could skate through "Drive," but they shine instead -- Osugi with his special brand of common-man comedy, Terajima, with his outlaw fire. Ando, who has been playing sweet-if-clueless hunks since his debut in Takeshi Kitano's "Kids Return," is essentially decoration: the male equivalent of the blonde bimbo. As such he serves his comic purpose well enough, though his story is pure seishun eiga (youth movie) wish fulfillment.

"Drive" is enjoying a long run at the theaters -- proof again that the Japanese audience will keep coming back if it likes the formula. But for all the funny bits, I couldn't help staring blankly out the window as the odometer clicked on. I'd been on this road too many times -- and the scenery was starting to blur.

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