14 years before Ryan Gosling took the wheel in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and became both a real human being and a real hero by doing so, Mark Dacascos became a bio-enhanced human being and hero in Steve Wang’s Drive (1997). Unlike Gosling, Dacascos neither knew about routes nor cared about a time and place, and his window was several days longer than five minutes. But unlike Dacascos, Gosling didn’t have superhuman reflexes bestowed on him by a super-science MacGuffin embedded in his chest, so the point goes to Dacascos.
If the 1997 Drive’s September 4K UHD release courtesy of 88 Films has any lessons to teach (and it has plenty), the most important is that Dacascos should have been a much bigger movie star. To most, he’s likely most recognizable as the Chairman of Iron Chef America rather than for the flurry of kicks, fists and funky head bops he plays in Drive. Granted, there are worse roles an actor can be recognized for: Halle Berry has made clear that she regrets starring in Warner Bros.’ Catwoman; Ben Affleck has had a hard time living down Gigli. That a cooking show came closest to establishing Dacascos as a household name in the U.S. rather than, say, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, shouldn’t be characterized as ignominious. Iron Chef was, after all, a popular brand in its own right.
At the same time, there’s meaningful injustice to Jackie Chan achieving household-name status in the U.S. around the time Drive went straight-to-video, predating Rush Hour by one year and landing on small screens two years after Rumble in the Bronx. Chan, like fellow international stars Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat, headed stateside as the Hong Kong movie industry crumbled, a product of factors including, but not limited to, the 1997 Asian financial crisis; overproduction expending quality; and the birth of the Category III rating, an appellation slapped on both softcore porn and grimy video nasty style films like The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome.
Maybe in an alternate timeline where Hong Kong cinema didn’t eat itself alive, and stars like Chan, Li and Chow, as well as major directors like John Woo, didn’t collectively go seek new fortune abroad, Drive would have enjoyed breathing room and found a proper 1990s audience. Then again, Dacascos’s filmography included a fistful of bombs, notably 1994’s Double Dragon adaptation and, worse, 1996’s notorious and possibly cursed adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Dacascos played a mercifully small role in the lumbering disaster, but without the backbone of a strong résumé, it’s possible that the film made it difficult for him to escape its reputation with studios or audiences.
This is a failure of taste and good sense. Drive impresses the primary lesson of Dacascos’ charisma and martial prowess upon its viewers, while also schooling them on the virtue of DTV films, in case anyone in 2022 needs reminding that “DTV” doesn’t automatically equal “bad.” Drive isn’t bad. It’s on the same level as Chan’s early U.S. movies, and arguably some of his early Hong Kong movies, as a combination buddy comedy, road trip picture and beat-’em-up action flick, where the structure consists of banter, shady exposition delivered with sinister, oozing command by the big bad and Kentucky-fried tough talk from the secondary heavy, alongside explosive martial arts whoopings where Dacascos dismantles hordes of anonymous thugs.
Dacascos plays Hong Kong special agent and man of conscience Toby Wong. With control over the city imminently reverting to the Chinese government, Toby flees the country with a powerful bio-device in hand (well, sternum), determined to keep the incoming administration from using the technology for nefarious purposes. He runs into Malik (Kadeem Hardison), an aspiring songwriter, who becomes Toby’s reluctant partner-cum-driver. To make mortal risk worthwhile, Toby makes Malik a deal: 50-50 splitsies on the profit he’ll make selling that device to a U.S. buyer. How can Malik refuse, other than the constant danger and uncomfortable come-ons by motel owner Deliverance (Brittany Murphy, rest her soul)?
As rocky as the duo’s start is, though, it doesn’t take long before they gel, in a scene for the buddy comedy movie books: Toby and Malik, cruising down the highway in Malik’s ‘73 Dodge Challenger, grooving to Intellect’s “Where’s the Party At,” the fastest way for dudes in peril to bond. The scene, in the current parlance, is a vibe, a perfect distillation of what Wang is aiming for with Drive: Warm character interactions and an easygoing sensibility to cushion brutal fight scenes orchestrated by Koichi Sakamoto, who appears on the set in audio commentary tracks along with Dacascos, Hardison and Wang. In those action scenes, Drive is not merely violent. It is savage, borrowing cues from Hong Kong action cinema at its bloodiest.
Toby doesn’t dispatch his enemies with punches and kicks alone. He disposes of them with fatal slashings, stabbings and bludgeonings, and at lightning speed with pinpoint accuracy; even Malik gets in on the grisly action—for instance by chainsawing a masked goon’s arm off, a move that’d make Leatherface proud. Even compared to the Woo and Chow movies made within shooting distance of its release—Hard Boiled, The Replacement Killers, Full Contact, Face/Off—Drive packs a vicious mean streak that contrasts nicely with its jokes, which run the gamut from pithy goofball one-liners to coarse, symbolic visual gags. Vic Madison (John Pyper-Ferguson), honky-tonk American henchman to main antagonist Mr. Lau (James Shigeta), squares off with Malik using a whip and a racial epithet, “boy.”
Unsurprisingly, Malik takes Vic’s weapon of choice a tad personally. “Are you outta your fucking mind?” he hisses, holding a pistol to the hillbilly’s head. The punchline hits with the same force as Drive’s violence and the same hambone chuckles as its various quips. That dual nature might represent Drive’s character as a movie even better than the combination of buddy-movie rapport and Sakamoto’s electrifying fight choreography: Entertainment that marries breezy tone with bone-crunching action under a low-budget banner. Would Drive be a better movie with more funds? Maybe. But it wouldn’t have the same independent vitality that makes it what it is-and frankly, considering the circumstances of its era, it’s a blessing that it exists at all.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer..