The latest collaboration between Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone is very much like the open-wheel racing it so openly celebrates: it goes around in circles interminably and winds up exactly where you knew it would. It’s also authentic in another unfortunate way: in the real racing world, the cars themselves, as well as the jumpsuits worn by their drivers, are little more than speeding billboards crammed with the logos of various sponsors. The picture is equally shameless in its product placements. Somehow, though, one doubts that having its name prominently featured in a turkey like this will help Firestone overcome all the bad publicity it’s weathered over the last year or so.
The screenplay concocted by Stallone is so formulaic that one can see the dots being connected as the picture unspools. Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue) is a rookie driver who’s got great potential but is cracking under pressure from his manager-brother DeMille (Robert Sean Leonard) and current champ Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger). His car owner boss Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds) calls in veteran driver Joe Tanto (Stallone) to work with the kid, a process complicated by the fact that Jimmy and Beau get into a tiff over Beau’s former girlfriend Sophia (Estella Warren) while Joe has to contend with his catty ex-wife Cathy (Gina Gershon), now married to the fellow he’s replacing, good-natured Memo Moreno (Cristian de la Fuente). Also lurking around the edges is a reporter named Lucretia (or “Luc” for short) (Stacy Edwards), who quickly gets romantically involved with Joe.
The interrelationships among all these folk are pretty much by-the-numbers (with the women all relegated to the sidelines as supports to their men), except for the fact that in the end, even the guys who seem nefarious turn out to be good at heart. “Driven” suffers from the fact that ultimately there’s no true villain on hand to hiss; it’s as though, in order to get permission to use a lot of real footage, Stallone had to present a rosy-eyed portrait of the entire racing community as endlessly courageous, with one another’s best interests ultimately uppermost in everybody’s mind. Sure. Nor has Sly even tried to invest his characters with anything but the most rudimentary and obvious qualities (even the monikers he’s attached to them are ridiculous). Jimmy (who rather incongruously wears thick glasses off the track–how can he see on it?) is the callow neophyte in need of guidance, and Joe the rough-hewn but wise mentor he needs; DeMille, meanwhile, is an officious jerk, and Carl the grizzled hard-ass who really knows what’s best for all his boys (he’s confined to a wheelchair, you see, so he must be pure under that gruff exterior). Beau and Memo are macho brothers-in-arms, both stiff as boards. As for the women, one might be weepy (Sophia) and another shrewish (Cathy) and a third rock-solid (Luc), but all are just on hand as props for their men, the universe around which their lives revolve.
As for the plot, it’s merely a race-by-race account of the chase for the championship between Jimmy and Beau over the course of a year, but it’s punctuated by a few truly absurd episodes of overwrought melodrama. About mid-way, when Sophia leaves Jimmy to go back to Beau, the crushed kid and Joe jump into prototype cars and engage in a long, loud, destructive race through the streets of downtown Chicago, after which the older man gets the rookie back on track (literally) by giving him one of the most inane heart-to-heart speeches ever committed to film. Later on three of the four major competitors join forces to save the life of a fourth, whose crashed car is sinking in a convenient lake. (How very plausible that they could get there before the paramedics.) And to get into the climactic race, which itself is filled with absurd feats of derring-do, an injured Jimmy must prove his mettle by undergoing a series of physical tests devised by Carl. (One might think we were back in the final reel of “Men of Honor,” though absent the diving gear–which would have come in handy during the lake sequence) Stallone also resorts constantly to the tired device of having ESPN announcers tell us what’s happening onscreen (and what it all means) rather than figuring out a way to make the action comprehensible on its own; that’s a sign of truly lazy, unimaginative writing.
Harlin tries to compensate for the material’s predictability by juicing up everything with whirling camera moves and lots of really unconvincing special-effects shots of crashing cars and flying debris. It’s hard to recall any film since “Judgment at Nuremberg” in which the lens circled speakers so insistently, and throughout the quick edits are so oppressive that “Driven” becomes less like a movie than a 110 minutes of back-to-back montages. Stuck in such a chaotic visual scheme, no actor could leave much of an impression, but those on hand here are especially weak. Pardue seems an attractive young fellow, but he’s bland and totally unconvincing as a “natural” driver. Stallone does his usual scowl-and-grumble bit, as does Reynolds (whose toupee, however, is radically improved). The other men are like statues, except for Leonard, who’s genuinely irritating as DeMille, and of the women only Gershon stands out, though for all the wrong reasons: her bitch act is already tiresome the moment she appears.
If, therefore, you’re looking for a completely brainless action movie that spins its wheels tediously for a couple of hours before exploding in a fireball of melodramatic excess, “Driven” is for you. Be aware, however, that the combination of Stallone’s hamfisted writing, Harlin’s suffocatingly flamboyant style and the cast’s wretched overacting is more likely to give you a case of cinematic whiplash than any pleasure.