Drive is pure, dreamy pulp friction – but not everyone is going to be persuaded by its stylish exterior. For some, the lack of narrative substance and cool, ironic distance will frustrate and impair the ride. Others will delight in its romantic, deliberately retro sheen and (many) surface pleasures.

When a European director gets behind the wheel of a classic American vehicle, the results are often surprising.  It’s definitely premature to place Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s eighth feature amongst such exalted company as Point Blank, Paris, Texas or Repo Man but this is another great outsiders’ view of American pop culture. Fusing 50s B-movie dynamics with 80s fatalistic pop-video romanticism, the result is a neon-spiked genre cocktail – a refreshing and distinctive take on a familiar classic.

This is a major breakthrough artistically for Refn – whose previous films have always been interesting, risky and challenging without ever totally coming together as a satisfying whole. Based on a novella by James Sallis, this is his most enjoyable film by miles. Man-crush du jour Ryan Gosling is the nameless driver doing stunt work by day and moonlighting as a getaway man. The icy precision of his controlled world is shattered when he meets neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. Irene’s husband is a jailbird who owes big money to some bad men. The driver sees a way to help out the family and by proxy win the girl. But it’s a terribly misguided romantic notion – the driver as shining knight in a world of mistrust and violence – and inevitably, the journey and its consequences are far from smooth.

Refn keeps things archetypal – there’s absolutely no back-story, no foreshadowing, no expositional dialogue. Hell, there is barely any dialogue at all. Good B-movie fan that he is, Refn understands that even if you slow the beats a little and strip away the dialogue you can deliver the pulp goods. With its minimalistic script and terse, uncomfortable exchanges, Drive fits comfortably into the mould of Sam Fuller and Don Siegel – with a dash of Leone.  But it is Michael Mann who is surely the biggest influence here.

Refn and his leading man may have cooked up their take on the flick in a bromantic homo-eroticized haze, wanting to make ‘Pretty in Pink with a head-smashing’ but Drive is pure Mann(a) – covering the same emotional landscape and wearing the same air of fatalism as Violent Streets and Manhunter. And what is Gosling’s twice repeated mantra to his clients – “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter” – but a total Heat homage/riff?

The Hughes influence is confined mostly to the hot (pretty in) pink credits and the fact that Refn mixes up the synth score and catchy euro-pop tunes much the way Hughes did. Although to be honest, you could say exactly the same for William Friedkin’s cop-rock masterwork To Live and Die in LA, another evident influence on this film’s look and feel.

It’s exceptionally difficult for me to be objective about this film. I was born in the mid-70s and my pop-cultural sensibilities were formed through exactly the kind of things Drive fetishizes unashamedly – comic books, Miami Vice, cult movies, mid-80s synthpop. Drive is pre-programmed to push those personal pleasure buttons – which it does with often spine-tingling élan. The wide shots of Gosling brooding in his apartment and taking night drives, the way Refn and his editor cut to the synth-laden beats, replete with slo-mo, back lighting and – I am certain at one point – dry-ice, will delight 80s fetishists and nostalgists everywhere.

Newton Thomas Sigel’s crisp lensing and the hypnotic, pulsating score by Cliff Martinez further heighten the film’s dreamlike, nostalgic resonance. Even more hypnagogic in its approach than 2011s other 80s valentine – JJ Abram’s Super 8 – Refn’s paean succeeds more readily because of its sheer simplicity and the way certain framed images brings to mind a dozen reference points without explicitly homaging any one film. Unlike Abram’s movie which so closely resembled its source (E.T) that it felt at times like a Gus Van Sant art-project remake.

Carey Mulligan is an unusual choice for Irene but quietly affecting in small scenes. Gosling seems to be channeling McQueen by way of Melville and is as watchable as ever. But this is not a film of dense characterisation or complexity. There is some fun to be had watching perennial nice-guy schlub Albert Brooks and Ron Hellboy Perlman play a couple of wiseguy thugs but they are never really threatening. Sexy cartoon-lady Christina Hendricks’ performance is all too fleeting, but unforgettable. The violence is shocking – a mélange of chrome, bone and blood, whether gushing from a half caved-in skull or a freshly blown-off head – but it too is totally heightened, stylised and unreal.

Nothing in Drive bears any relation to reality and for some there may be a feeling that, unlike those great noirs that inspired it, the film lacks a genuinely compelling, dangerous or driven narrative. We never get close enough to the driver to care enough about him or even understand his motives. And while Gosling is a terrific natural talent, he is maybe too baby-faced to nail the lone wolf shtick. His and Mulligan’s line readings are so buttoned-up they teeter into the realms of parody.

It will be interesting to see how the film holds up when taken out for repeat spins. Perhaps it won’t age too well. Right now though, for this writer (and when viewed in the context of a so far uninspiring year for mainstream US cinema), this is the most exhilarating ride of 2011.