Following John Woo’s Hollywood invasion in 1993 with Hard Target, his contemporaries Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark came to America’s shores to further establish their brand of kinetic action with Maximum Risk (1996) and Double Team (1997), respectively, both starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. But beyond the standard-setting work of these Hong Kong luminaries, one American film from the ‘90s captures the reckless abandon of Hong Kong cinema better than anything Woo, Lam, or Hark made in their time in Hollywood: Taiwanese filmmaker Steve Wang’s martial-arts buddy cyber-thriller Drive (1997).
Released the same year that Hark delivered Double Team and Woo the iconic genre riff Face/Off, Drive has plenty of competition but manages to deliver something simultaneously more artful and exhausting; a martial arts movie where the fight sequences last for more than ten minutes, with minimal cutting, and the environments are more befitting of an early 80s neon-lit neo-noir than anything resembling the late 90s. And though grounded in some semblance of reality, Drive has sci-fi flourishes — the Iron Chef himself, Mark Dacascos, playing a cyber-enhanced human — that help it rise above the usual dynamics of the era’s pervasive buddy movie, and its dystopian TV programming (we see numerous clips of a charmingly titled show called Einstein Frog) keep things teetering on the surreal.
Aside from frog skits and cyber jargon, what anyone watching Drive is likely hoping for is action, and it consistently delivers. The weapons run from firearms to chainsaws to a pair of shoes strapped to Dacascos’s fists, while the many locations include a spaceship-themed nightclub, the site of an extended climactic showdown complete with goons on dirt bikes. Drive ultimately plays like a greatest hits compilation — a Now That’s What I Call Hong Kong Cinema — of what we know and love from the genre. As erratic as that may sound, it’s certainly not a complaint; the only other late ‘90s American film by a Hong Kong director that comes close is Kirk Wong’s The Big Hit (1998).
Unfortunately, Drive fell victim to its producers. After turning in a nearly two-hour-long action epic, Steve Wang saw twenty minutes excised for video release, with all scenes of exposition deemed superfluous cut out to create a tighter action film. And, naturally, a garish techno soundtrack was added in place of the score he had composed, not unlike many Jackie Chan and Jet Li films released in the US around the same time. Wang’s original cut has since been made available on video, including the recently released US Blu-ray from MVD Rewind. The shortened edit is available to stream on Tubi and as a special feature on the MVD disc release.