Drive All Night (USA, 2021) [CAAMFest 2021]

A dreamlike neo-noir bathed in ‘80s aesthetics, Peter Hsieh’s feature debut Drive All Night concerns a taxi driver whose shift takes a surreal turn. Fusing the premise of Michael Mann’s thriller Collateral (2004) with the cryptic imagery of David Lynch, the film prompts a pervading sense of déjà vu which occasionally works in favor of its studied ambience but generally gives the impression that Hsieh isn’t quite sure how to channel his immediately recognizable influences. Not content with cinematic homage, Hsieh also incorporates allusions to video games since this is, in fact, a transmedia endeavour with a free game available from the App Store or Google Play. Although it can be pleasurable to unlock backstories, plot points, and alternative perspectives across different storytelling mediums, the film iteration of Drive All Night just doesn’t capture the imagination to the extent that its narrative seems worth exploring elsewhere.

It seems to be just another night for mellow taxi driver Dave (Yutaka Takeuchi), who engages in guarded flirtation with diner waitress Morgan (Sarah Dumont) in-between transporting his passengers around after hours San Jose. That changes when he picks up the alluringly aloof Cara (Lexy Hammonds), who proves to be a something of backseat driver. Returning to her home city after a prolonged absence, Cara takes Dave to an arcade bar, a nightclub where the singer might be a vampire, an experimental theatre show, and eventually back to her motel room where he wonders what exactly is in the duffel bag that she picked on one of their stops. Meanwhile, obsessive gamer and professional hitman Lenny (Johnny Gilligan) is in pursuit of a woman, presumably Cara, who has evidently angered a shadowy crime syndicate.

In terms of its video game elements, Drive All Night is more enamored with environment than action, echoing David Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999) and Steven Knight’s much-maligned Serenity (2019) without attempting similar plot coups. Despite being set in a large city and featuring freeway drone footage, it’s a decidedly interior experience on the whole with a limited range of characters defined by jobs and routines, aside from the proactive Cara who questions Dave’s agency and encourages him to break free of self-imposed inertia. Dave, fellow taxi drivers Frank (Will Springhorn) and Marv (James J. Der Jr.), sunlight-averse cabaret singer Midnight Judy (Natalia Berger), and Morgan are possibly minor characters in a video game and therefore trapped in a perpetual loop.

Asian-Americans have often been sidelined in Western-themed video games so Dave and Marv could serve as a commentary on how they usually play peripheral roles in a white character’s quest. Marv appears in just one diner scene during which he has limited dialogue whereas the talkative Frank gets to riff on the pop culture significance of Bill Clinton and Christina Aguilera. Although we learn that Marv is also a theater actor, this is revealed by Frank and Marv’s thespian dreams are pursued off-screen. If we are navigating a game world, then the locations are well chosen, particularly the arcade bar Miniboss where Cara dispenses game trivia ranging from the development history of Mortal Kombat to the map 256 glitch from the original Pac-Man, while Hsieh uses abrupt edits and jarring color changes to suggest programming errors. However, he may just be drawing a comparison between the mundane nature of regular jobs and the limitations of a certain era of gaming – that any experience becomes lifeless when one is required to repeat the same motions within a restricted universe.

The look of the film is impressive, if familiar from a recent deluge of retro items, with cinematographer William Hellmuth getting the neon infused palette just right. In tandem with the stylized visuals, a predominantly synthwave score by Robert Daniel Thomas makes this a film which would delight the crowd that flipped for Drive (2011) and Mandy (2018) if it only exuded a stronger sense of what it wanted to be, in and of itself. It doesn’t help that Hsieh has a penchant for interspersing the loose story with color-coded dream sequences in which the characters walk down corridors (the genial Dave gets cool blue while Cara’s and Lenny’s are enveloped in intense red that suit their more visceral natures). These digressions soon start to feel suspiciously like self-conscious padding and are so open to interpretation that any effort to decode them will yield more questions than answers.

Hsieh presumably intended the central dynamic between Dave and Cara to pull the audience through the dense atmospherics, but their burgeoning attraction doesn’t really click. Although there are countless films in which characters develop a deep connection in a relatively short space of time, the dialogue here is rather stilted and chemistry between Takeuchi and Hammonds is lacking. Individually, however, they are fine. Takeuchi is suitably stoic, hinting at a troubled past yet maintaining a calmly appealing demeanor, while British actress Hammonds is a strong presence who imbues her mysterious passenger with a bold attitude to match her cool wardrobe. As the antagonist, Gilligan initially brings a certain menace only to be undermined by a screenplay which conspires to keep Lenny one step behind his target. By the time a sinister underworld figure (Vonn Scott Bair) orders the hitman to get a move on, those who have not been seduced by the film’s sleek surface will surely be thinking likewise.

Drive All Night is available on demand as part of CAAMFest 2021 from May 13-23.