Statistics for open-wheel racing are introduced at the beginning of the film: 900 million spectators, 250 miles per hour, 20 races, 1 championship. The mind-boggling data (I oddly felt like I was supposed to do some math at this point) sets the stage for Driven, a sensory spectacle about the messy melodrama surrounding a Formula One-type car racing competition.
The opening credits also double as a warning flag: this film is directed by Renny Harlin and is written by and stars Sylvester Stallone. Common sense says that no one should allow these two men to make a movie together again after 1993’s Cliffhanger. The good news is that Driven is not a step down from their muffed mountain thriller. The bad news is that it is not much of a step up, either.
The plot is simple. Rookie racer Jimmy Bly (Kip Purdue) is being groomed by car team owner Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds) to win the world championship from incumbent Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger). Jimmy is having trouble with focus and consistency, and slows when going into curves, so Carl fires his B-team driver Memo Moreno (Christian de la Fuente) and brings in former track sensation Joe Tanto (Stallone) to mentor Bly.
The personal relationships in the film are more knotted. Jimmy’s manager-brother (Robert Sean Leonard) constantly pressures him and tries to keep Joe from talking directly to the young contender ("I channel well,” he tells Joe). Memo and Joe are best friends even though Joe’s ex-wife (Gina Gershon) is now married to Memo and often throws verbal excrement into the proverbial fan ("He’s a younger better you!” she taunts Joe). Beau breaks up with his fiancée (Estella Warren) and then wants her back after she begins dating Jimmy. Carl and Joe butt heads, and Memo returns to the fold as a sort of fifth wheel.
The real star as well as distraction here is Harlin and his technical cohorts. They have spliced live racing footage and state-of-the-art digital effects into breathless orgies of sound, speed, color, cataclysm and flying debris. Being convinced that you are rocketing around the track at over 200 miles an hour can be exciting. Being convinced that you are so close to the car in front of you that its reflection is visible in your helmet faceplate is a rush, and seeing raindrops dance on the same faceplate from the driver’s point of view is a definite trip. The rub is that the MTV-like editing and montages here bathe us in atmosphere but choke the tension of the racing itself. The ever circling, jumping cameras have the same effect on the film’s people-to-people moments.
Stallone keeps the dialogue tidy by having the characters talk briskly to each other in roving groups of two and three. The sparring is lively but only scratches the surface of the characters and is occasionally laughable. Issues of allegiance, regret, ambition and pride are addressed. The gray area between what men are and what they do for a living is clumsily explored, and the inclusion of a female journalist who follows the racers around the world feels severely abridged.
Reynolds’ fuel-guzzling credentials (Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit) give the film a jaded nostalgic resonance—even on a bad toupee day—but he looks like he’s about to spit dentures onto the pavement during one shouting match with Stallone. Schweiger seems to have escaped from a Saturday Night Live “Sprockets” sketch before gradually warming to his role. Stallone has written himself into the story as an ensemble rather than spotlight player, a restraint sorely lacking in the general script, which includes a preposterous rescue scene and downright silly chase through the streets of Chicago at 195 miles per hour.
Gorgeous blonde talent Warren flawlessly performs a gratuitous water ballet in a Tokyo hotel pool. The scene gave Harlin a chance to sneak in a crotch shot into a PG-13 rated movie and made me stop to wonder what came first: the chick(en) (Warren was a member of Canada’s national synchronized swim team at the age of 12) or the egg on Stallone’s script. The soundtrack rocks. Too bad the film sinks like one.