"I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.” That may be more words than Ryan Gosling strings together at once in all of Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterfully crafted, hugely entertaining neo-noir, “Drive,” and his nameless character, identified – appropriately – in the film’s credits as “Driver,” doesn’t utter them.

"I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.” That may be more words than Ryan Gosling strings together at once in all of Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterfully crafted, hugely entertaining neo-noir “Drive,” and his nameless character, identified – appropriately – in the film’s credits as “Driver,” doesn’t utter them.


No, these words are uttered by the Driver in James Sallis’ slim, 176-page novel, which has been adapted into an even slimmer screenplay by Hossein Amini. Between the thrilling driving sequences, panoramic shots of downtown Los Angeles and the wordless exchanges between neighbors and would-be lovers Driver and Irene (Carey Mulligan of “An Education”), I’d be surprised if the script for “Drive” filled more than 50 pages.


That’s not a criticism.


What Refn (Danish director of “Bronson” and the “Pusher” trilogy) has captured onscreen could be the best film Michael Mann never made in the ’80s, complete with a retro-synthesized music score (courtesy of former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez, who’s also currently helping to freak audiences out with his music for Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion”) and hot neon pinks of the movie’s credits. All of you “Thief” fans are in for a treat.


And fans of Walter Hill’s obscure 1978 movie “The Driver” (starring Ryan O’Neal as, yes, “the Driver”) may have heard at least part of this plot before: an L.A. wheelman for hire – a stunt driver for movie productions by day/getaway driver for armed heists by night – becomes involved in a robbery gone bad, his payback for helping Irene’s ex-con husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), whose wife and young son (Kaden Leos) have been threatened with violence by his former prison mates if Standard doesn’t pay back a protection debt that predictably grows into extortion.


Add in a helping hand from Shannon (Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad”), Driver’s lone friend, boss and trouble-magnet, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. And this assistance comes after Shannon decides to borrow money from former film producer Bernie Rose (a wonderfully cast-against-type Albert Brooks) – a nice enough fellow, if you keep him away from the cutlery – to bankroll a race car, with Driver as, well, its driver.


So far, so convoluted.


But deceptively so. Sure, Bernie has an unfortunate business relationship with a screw-up of a partner himself, Nino (“Hellboy” Ron Perlman, working without makeup and loving it), who’s got a hand in Driver’s troubles, and busty bombshell Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”) shows up just long enough for bad things to happen to her, turning her crimson locks a slightly different shade of red, but the movie’s narrative arc and character motivations are blissfully simple.


Refn eschews the hardscrabble pop philosophizing theatrics that Tom Hardy (one of the pugilist brothers in “Warrior”) nevertheless made so watchable in “Bronson,” dispensing with Driver’s near-existential moral foundations and his troubled childhood that’s explored in Sallis’ novel, instead allowing young method practitioner Gosling to fill in any character blanks with his cool confidence, which can veer from charming to homicidal with the shift of a gear.


But, it’s when Driver takes his seat behind the wheel of a car that Refn and Gosling really take you for an amazing ride, from the getaway that opens the film (one that finds Driver eluding multiple police cars and a police copter before ditching both his ride and his tails in the Staples Center parking garage during a basketball game) to the centerpiece heist that leads to a winding escape down a coastal highway that shows off the skills of a director and his actor who have a perfect feel for their material.


Mind you, that’s seven different credited stunt drivers doing much of the actual, non-computer generated driving, but their contributions are seamlessly interwoven with shots of Gosling behind the wheel of real cars on real streets, an ever-present toothpick clenched between his teeth, while Refn cleanly presents the action with a minimum of edits and a clear sense of geography within his shots.


There’s none of that rapid-cutting, movement for movement’s sake that so many filmmaker’s fall back on as a visceral crutch. (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay.) If driving’s not your thing (what are you doing at a film named “Drive,” anyway?), there are moments of tenderness in here, too. Just bear in mind that they’re interrupted by incredible bursts of violence.


Not for the squeamish, the retro-styled “Drive” is one hell of a ride.


DRIVE (R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity.) Cast includes Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman. 3.5 stars out of 4.