In the tradition of "Le Mans," "Grand Prix," and "Days of Thunder," the new Renny Harlin film "Driven" (IMDb listing) takes us into the uncompromising world of auto racing. We meet the men, the women who love them, and the cars they drive. Unfortunately, "Driven" also sustains some racing movie traditions by choosing bombast over construction.
Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue), a young CART racing champion, is beginning to feel the pressure of fame. It's taken a toll of his personal life and has strained his relationship with his manager/brother (Robert Sean Leonard). Fearing a burnout, Jimmy's team manager, Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds), calls in one of his former drivers, Joe Tanto (Sylvester Stallone), to help steer Jimmy back into the game both emotionally and professionally. Tanto finds himself back on the circuit after a long absence, ready to drive and hoping to win. Soon enough, Tanto realizes that his time has passed, his ex-wife (Gina Gershon) has remarried, and the sport has moved on without him. As Jimmy tries to rebound after losing his girlfriend (Estella Warren) to his nearest rival (German superstar Til Schweiger), he finds himself surrendering his grip on sanity with only Tanto as his hope to guide him through the darkness.
Working from a screenplay credited to his "Cliffhanger" collaborator Stallone, director Renny Harlin ("Deep Blue Sea," "The Long Kiss Goodnight") has the raw materials to move above and beyond where other films of this cloth have failed. Stallone has written a flawed, but essentially workable screenplay that surprises with sophisticated character traits and loyalties. There is a tendency for this type of big-budgeted film to fall in love with one-dimensional characters who find themselves in corners real people wouldn't go into. "Driven" often desires to create more practical characters that are realistically distressed and unmistakably human.
For instance, in Stallone's script, the Til Schweiger character is not the baneful race king out to crush his competition. He is more of a self-conscious driver with far too much baggage in his life, forcing him to unwillingly hurt his girlfriend and blindly chase Jimmy for the title. You don't normally get that kind of depth in the supporting characters, especially from the so-called "Villain" of the piece. Estella Warren is also given more emotional depth than her role the token woman typically allows.
The trouble is that Harlin who has had no problem with his visual techniques before is second guessing the screenplay by over-amping the visuals and suffocating any sort of dramatic tension with his newfound discovery of rapid-fire editing. For the first time in his career, Harlin is stepping into that detestable Michael Bay territory where the director has no faith in the material and is unable to sit still for 5 seconds. By choosing fireworks over the fires within, and gloss where there should be grimy emotional progress, Harlin strikes out with "Driven" by whoring it out as ADD porn for the restless.
Sadly, restless is what I became with "Driven." I have always supported and admired Harlin's keen instincts for extravagance and action, and the man does have one of the more fluid methods of filmmaking in Hollywood today. But with "Driven," Harlin has taken a step backwards in his style. By overcompensating so drastically, Harlin keeps "Driven" permanently in the pit stop.
There is something admirable about Stallone writing himself a supporting role. A true veteran of cinema, Stallone hands over the reigns to aspiring star Kip Pardue to guide the film. Yet, for all the trouble the production goes to keep Stallone out of the driver's seat, I privately wished for the duration of the entire movie that Stallone would step out of the shadows and take back the film with his cozy charm and abilities. But that moment never comes. Pardue gives one supremely bad performance as the troubled CART superstar. Blown off the screen by the entire cast (even supermodel Estella Warren has a nice film debut here), Pardue just doesn't have the skills to muster the kind of poignancy this character needs.
But we're not here for the actors, are we? The CART races are what we show up for and Harlin doesn't disappoint. Fast, fluid, and sonically ambitious, the racing scenes keep "Driven" from falling apart. Harlin pulls out all the stops when the cars rev up. Notably breathtaking is a set piece where Joe and Jimmy race their cars through the streets of Chicago. This type of kinetic action is Harlin's specialty, and that's when "Driven" fires on all cylinders.
As a testosterone orgy of squealing tires, loving closeups of the female anatomy, and car crashes, "Driven" is "Citizen Kane." It's only when Harlin tries to piece it all into a cohesive movie that the trouble starts. "Driven" is diverting and exciting (in a strobe light kind of way), but all the participants are slumming when a little faith from Harlin in their talents would've worked just fine.
Filmfodder Grade: C