In Drive, Albert Brooks plays Bernie Rose, a former movie producer turned mobster in Los Angeles (the film refrains, but only barely, from making the joke that those two occupations are the same thing), who at one point quietly reflects upon his former career. "The critics called them 'European'" he says (or close enough). "I thought they were shit". It is the most leading moment in a film that doesn't hurt for such things, the point where director Nicolas Winding Refn (who rewrote huge portions of Hossein Amini's screenplay, it is said, and I'd bet a lot that this line of dialogue was one of those portions) tosses all his cards on the table face up and announces in a loud voice, "By the way, if you hadn't noticed, this is a genre pastiche. And if you did notice, I've just confirmed it for you. You're welcome".

A genre pastiche par excellence, too: big heaping piles of Jean-Pierre Melville (an anonymous protagonist who barely speaks and only then in clipped, hoarse sentences), the inevitable sampling of Point Blank, a visual style that suggest Michael Mann as a 1920s German filmmaker, and according to Winding Refn himself, it's all a crypto-remake of John Hughes's Sixteen Candles, a contention so unbearably fascinating that I fear my own inadequacy to explore it whatsoever. The score is all new music that is made to sound so much like the synth-besotted neo-noirs of the early 1980s that it hurts, though not as much as the hot pink used for the opening credits. (I have not seen Walter Hill's The Driver, another film frequently cited as an important influence).

Drive has been as hyped up as any other film of 2011, and it's probably inevitable not to feel a slight note of deflation as a result, but before I get into that, my one incredibly petty, totally useless complaint: for all that I love a good Melville/Point Blank pastiche, it has been only two years since we got a really fucking fantastic one in The Limits of Control (which is, admittedly, a movie that is by no means universally regarded as "adequately watchable", let alone "fucking fantastic"), and Drive is no The Limits of Control. It is a sublimely compiled mixtape of ideas and themes and visual notions from the past 50 years of moody, existential action films, and in the manner of Quentin Tarantino, Winding Refn steals with such intelligence and thoughtfulness that there is a boldness and creativity to the film even though hardly a single moment of it is "original" in any way. But it holds back a little too much from greatness: it's too aware that it falls within a tradition of chilly movies about wordless action heroes, and parts of it are brittle as a result. Parts of it are not brittle at all, and there are two sequences in the film that rank among the absolute best thriller setpieces of the last, I don't know how many years.

Drive is about a man played by Ryan Gosling who works in a garage for a living, and occasionally helps his boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), in a side business of doing car stunts for movies, and even more occasionally acts as getaway driver for hire - our introduction to him, and his movie, comes as he speaks in measured tones to somebody on the phone about the very particular rules under which he'll do this kind of work. The driver has no name, and once you've noticed that he has no name, the little ways that the movie nearly breaks itself in two to make sure that he never accidentally reveals his name to the audience ache like a mouthful of rotten teeth. That's the sort of thing I mean, when I say that Drive suffers from too much self-awareness: it has to be done because it is The Thing That Is Cool, but having to be done does not mean that it is done gracefully.

Over the course of the film, the driver gets to know his neighbors, a woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos); his promising flirtation with her jams to a halt after her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, but in the meantime the driver has come to idealise the family as everything that is good and nice in contrast to the emptiness he sees everywhere else, and so even with his chance for love knocked down, he still offers to help Standard out when some former associates of his in prison come looking for an impossible sum of money. The plan to raise this money goes spectacularly wrong, and keeps going spectacularly wrong, and in due course this man of the most elemental simplicity is confronted with the implosion of his entire life, in which the one good outcome is that he might be able to preserve the safety and innocence of those two people so dear to him.

Cosmic nihilism is no new territory for Winding Refn, of the grim Pusher trilogy and the operatically brutal Bronson. That's a big part of what makes Drive successful, for there's little point in denying that the film it's nasty potency. Anchored by Gosling's "man who wasn't there" glacialness in the central role, the film is slow and methodical, not in the "boring and pacey" way, but in the "stalking, looking for where to shiv you" way. The scorpion jacket the driver wears constantly is explained in-film through that old chestnut, "The Scorpion and the Frog" (which is, thankfully, not repeated in full, other than the punchline), but outside of the film, the even better answer is that the film is itself predatory, and so is its protagonist, the thoughtful, slow kind of predator that hides in damp places and springs out in a flurry of claws. Which, in Drive's case, is the abrupt turn it takes into stomach-turning violence about two-thirds of the way through, a descent into gore as well-timed and unexpected as one could possibly hope for.

The film is best when it's plumbing barbarism like that, not always in such visceral terms. Drive is a mercilessly cold film, beginning with its characters - particularly Brooks's Bernie, an immaculate performance of a matter-of-fact psychopath (there is a moment in which he kills another person, and immediately starts to speak in soothing tones that everything is okay & the worst part is over as his victim bleeds to death - it is the most chilling, even terrifying moment I've seen in a theater all year) so perfect it makes one wish there was more of him, though of course part of what makes him so effective is that he's not diluted from overexposure. Gosling doesn't have the luxury of being nearly so colorful, but his slowness and quiet are a perfect fit for what the movie requires of him.

Then there is the style of the piece, evoking Mann and Melville especially but doing something not quite either of them. I could never shake the feeling of it being an excessively "electronic" movie, what with the music and songs, and then the gorgeous cinematography of Newton Thomas Sigel, noir with all the deep blacks flattened into the hazy never-dark of an urban environment plastered with street lamps and stoplights and sickly fluorescent that you can almost, but not quite hear buzzing.

So mechanical and fabricated is the film's world, and brilliantly so, that the purported humanism of the Irene/Benicio material fails entirely to be convincing, even as a dream the driver briefly has of a better life. Perhaps this is the point, I'm not certain. At any rate, Gosling too carefully renders the driver in immutably opaque shades, and Winding Refn and company too persuasively leach all the life and goodness out of the visuals, and the shift back into something resembling comfort and warmth and happiness falls completely flat. This doesn't even hurt the movie, as such: the harshness of it is what makes it so memorable, along with the precision of its big setpieces (a thrillingly choreographed opening getaway, and the entire matter of the mid-film caper and how it goes wrong, culminating in a hotel room scene that completely earns that laziest of encomiums, Hitchockian), and the leaden Irene material - magnified by Mulligan's extremely game attempt to play a character she's not well-suited for - bogs the film down as padding, without lessening it.

Of course, 100 minutes of existential chilliness modulated by an awkward "saved by the love of a good woman" subplot, all adds up to a kind of deliberately nasty exercise that does not, at any rate, equal a terrifically fun or edifying night out. It is an excellent, even magnificent machine: but with its inadequate feint towards humanism, and without the intuitive feel of its best models, Drive must settle for being just an awfully damn good movie.