Critics are praising a fresh, stylish take on an old story—and they should be. It’s a very well-made film.

A criminal, dodging the law and living off risky business, encounters a damsel in distress and her adorable sidekick. Using his carefully controlled catalog of facial expressions, he connects with her quickly. And, spending time with her, he finds himself motivated to—gasp!—improve himself. While this cocky crook still has to keep an eye out for lawmen, and his ill-advised criminal partnerships put dangerous brutes in hot pursuit, he lets his heart and his conscience lead him to help this beautiful woman escape the trap that’s closing around her. Get ready for thrilling high-speed chases, during which the hero’s transportation almost steals the show.

I’m talking—of course—about Walt Disney’s animated musical Tangled, now available on DVD.

But I’ve just seen director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new slow-burn thriller—Drive—and the very same description applies quite well. So, since you’ve probably already seen Tangled, let’s forget all about it and talk about Drive.

A Hyperviolent Fairy Tale

Drive is a fairy tale—but it’s an extremely R-rated fairy tale dressed up as a crime thriller. It belongs to the genre I like to call the “Bad Guy Who’s the Best At What He Does Has Second Thoughts When He Meets a Girl But Finds That Crime is Hard to Quit” genre.

And within that genre, it achieves a remarkable distinction. It’s reminding critics of all kinds of movies—I’ll mention a few that came to my mind—and yet it also startled me with that rare and thrilling sense that I was seeing something very, very new.

The less I tell you about the story, the better. This is one of those you want to discover as it goes.

Suffice it to say that Gosling plays a “Man with No Name”—the credits call him “Driver”—who works three jobs. By day, Driver works in a garage with his boss, a brusque, amoral fellow named Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who brags about “exploiting” his talented protégé. In his spare time, Driver works as a Hollywood stunt driver.

And by night, well… that’s where things get interesting. By night, Driver sells his expert abilities behind the wheel to criminals who need a driver. Shannon supplies the cars. (To help him avoid the cops, he puts Driver behind the wheel of California’s most popular car—a Chevy Impala. “No one will be looking at you.”)

But when Driver meets his neighbors—a young woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son—he is quickly drawn to her. And he can’t help but enjoy the attention of the boy, who clearly needs a father figure. But before long, Driver realizes that Irene is living in a very dangerous situation, and he can’t resist the desire to help her.

Los Angeles is a big place, but the driver quickly discovers that the world is dangerously small. The relationship that ignites during a pleasant joyride along the long line of concrete called the Los Angeles River leads to far more dangerous stuff—like playing the getaway driver in a high-speed chase with a secretive beauty (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) in the back seat.

A Film in Rare Company

What does it remind me of?

Would you believe Lost in Translation? Its fusion of dreamlike imagery, clever casting, and music-video sensibilities reminds me of Sofia Coppola’s style. What Marie Antoinette was for historical costume dramas, Drive is for crime thrillers. If Sofia were a dude making genre action movies to impress Quentin Tarantino, they would be a lot like this.

Also: Sodbergh’s Out of Sight. It’s the same kind of slow-burn crime thriller, although its sense of humor is bone dry (and brilliant). It gives us a bad guy (not George Clooney, but Ryan Gosling) who is drawn to a beautiful woman (not Jennifer Lopez, but Carey Mulligan). And the woman is drawn to the bad guy’s confidence, charm, and dangerous impulses even as she begins to make him second-guess his criminal impulses.

Both of those films charge forward with incredible confidence, propelled by excellent, moody soundtracks. Out of Sight runs on electronica, jazz, and funk, while Drive hums with techno-pop and an amusingly obvious theme song called “A Real Hero.” And the sound design contributes to a dreamy ambience. One of the first things you’ll hear in the movie is the pulse of sub-woofer reverberation, as though a macho car is cruising past the Cineplex.

Oh, another thing. Both Out of Sight and Drive feature Albert Brooks playing against type as, well… let’s just say he’s not one of the “good guys.”

It reminds me of Michael Mann’s Heat in that Ryan Gosling plays a man of very few words who seems to be making quick decisions in heavy traffic even when he’s sitting in a restaurant or riding in an elevator with a beautiful woman. And the film’s more fantastical elements—like the main character’s hilarious combination of jobs, or his comic book hero speed and strength—seem almost plausible because Refn delivers a completely convincing Los Angeles environment, avoiding familiar backdrops and living on the back streets.

I also thought of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The film’s genre elements are given steroidal boosts, to the point that they’re simultaneously cartoonish and compelling. The pop songs in the soundtrack draw all kinds of attention to themselves, celebrating an era of television and moviemaking as much as they celebrate a genre. The villains are outlandish and hilarious. (Ron Perlman plays a grouchy hulk of a gangster in a performance as over-the-top and memorable as his turn in Hellboy.

And, as in Pulp Fiction, when the violence happens, it happens with such suddenness and intensity that you’re shocked and horrified. In the words of President Obama—“Let me be clear.” This film’s violence is very, very graphic. This movie is not for kids… and it’s probably not for most adults. You’re especially shocked to find that a character who has charmed you is capable of such immediate, spectacular brutality.

Best of all—like Tarantino, Refn knows that the small moments matter as much as the big ones, and the silences are as powerful as the noise. Perhaps the best thing I can say about this movie is that, for all of its explosive energy, the three moments that stick with me the most involve:

1) a stare-down game with a child,

2) a quiet moment in which the hero looks very carefully at the other people in an elevator (this elevator scene is even more memorable than Die Hard’s), and

3) a close-up of the hero’s eyes.

A Real Hero?

After the film, I found myself puzzled by the appeal of the deranged criminal that this film calls “a Real Hero.” Why do we root for Driver so quickly? He’s clearly a deluded individual, one who sees himself as a kind of fantasy—a tough guy in a stylish jacket who is bound to pay the price for his crimes sooner or later.

Part of it can be blamed on Ryan Gosling. He’s brilliant here, playing a character who, like The Iron Giant, rarely speaks, plays well with children, is good at fixing things up, and, when he’s provoked, suddenly turns into an explosive killing machine. He plays Driver with a detached, deadpan demeanor as if he’s still uncertain whether he really wants to be in this movie or not. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Gosling might break the fourth wall at any moment to say “Can you believe this movie?” And yet, he also has moments of endearing warmth and moments of swift and brutal action that recall the supreme confidence of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. His restraint throughout the film gives his few moments of explosive emotion a searing power.

The character’s appeal also has to do with his particular code (or, as another critic more accurately put it, his “system”). Driver does an honorable job by day, invests in feeding our fantasies on the side, and then indulges in a fantasy himself—one that’s sure to come crashing down on him in time.

Call it “the five-second rule.” You know that rule, right? It’s the rule that says food is still good if it’s only been on the floor for five seconds. We know we’re fooling ourselves when we say that, and yet, if we’ve just dropped an Oreo cookie, many of us will probably snatch it up, brush it off, and eat it anyway. Driver has a “five minute rule.” He gets a thrill from stepping into criminal behavior and out of it. But his five-minute rule – “I’m giving you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours, no matter what.” – it’s just enough flirtation with danger to make his life exciting, but probably not so much it will cause real consequences. Or so he thinks.

How many of us have versions of that in our experience? Just a few minutes of your favorite vice… really, how much harm can it do? As The Big Chill’s Michael said, “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”

Thus, you could say that Drive is a film about the little lies we tell ourselves in order to spice up our lives. You could say it’s about the consequences of compromises and crimes, in that Driver’s criminal activities are going to make it all but impossible to live “happily ever after.”

And yet, the film clearly glamorizes fighting crime with similarly criminal activity. You could even call it an allegory for America — fighting the world’s bad guys with violent “above the law” tactics and very dirty hands, while convincing us that this is all righteous and necessary.

But good grief — defending this movie on grounds of its “moral message” is a very desperate maneuver. The movie isn’t much interested in cultivating conscience in its audience. I think, rather, that it assumes our conscience is alive. The film’s humor depends on the audience’s awareness of Driver’s ethical contradictions and conundrums.

No, the movie’s raison d’être is to celebrate a genre, impressively improving certain distinguishing characteristics—editing, acting, action, soundtrack, cinematography — even as it exaggerates other aspects to expose the lunacy of the whole affair. (In that sense, it’s a cousin of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and Deathproof.)

How can you not laugh when scenes of sensationally violent machismo are accompanied by a sing-along lyrics that say, “He’s a real hero”?

In fact, the film’s best joke is that it contains a description of itself — spoken by the villain to describe his own work. You can’t get more self-aware than that.

It’s an exercise in superlative craftsmanship, and an amusing, even whimsical take on Beauty and the Beast. And for me, that’s more than enough. I went in wondering why I was being duped into seeing another movie about a crook and a damsel in distress, and I walked out buzzing, eager to see it again as soon as possible.

(One lingering complaint: For a movie about a stunt driver — a movie called Drive — this movie needed more driving. Alas, it seems to forget its own title during the last 30 minutes.)