Forgotten Stallone: DRIVEN

Someone wins a race. No one wins this movie.

You know times are tough when a Renny Harlin movie written by and starring Sylvester Stallone gets lost to the sands of movie history. And yet, here is DRIVEN, one of the worst films I’ve seen in a while. Worse than RAVEN.

Speaking of RAVEN, DRIVEN also features a post-BOOGIE NIGHTS Burt Reynolds. I just want to note that this link between weekly themes is coincidental. I am neither clever or lucky enough to recreate such a handoff every Monday. Also, Burt Reynolds is so wasted in this film anyway. He plays a paraplegic coach, but instead of coaching all he does is threaten to fire people.

Stallone is a super talented guy, with good reason to hold himself a bit higher than his muscle-bound brethren. The problem is his ego. Most of the ideas that made him great were the result of all his really bad ideas and instincts getting snuffed out first. Without that help from God or whoever up there wants to watch kick ass movies, Stallone is amazingly susceptible to producing bad work. DRIVEN offers a perfect example. From its opening scenes the film feels pushed out against its own will, like its two editors struggled just to make something watchable, much less good. Apparently there was once a four-hour cut, and there’s a DVD edition out there with almost a full hours of deleted scenes. It is a classic mess of a film.

In addition to Stallone’s ego, DRIVEN also suffers from whatever happened to Renny Harlin after DEEP BLUE SEA. Its 2001 release put it at an ugly time in general as movies transitioned from the ‘90s to the full digital era we’re living in now. Even then, Harlin knew what he was doing when it come to dumb, clean action. People give him shit for CUTTHROAT ISLAND, but he made a lot of films that are better than they probably should have been: DIE HARD 2, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4... he even had Stallone experience thanks to CLIFFHANGER.

That Harlin is gone completely in DRIVEN, replaced by a computer programmed to mimic Tony Scott and Michael Bay.  The film utilizes a constantly moving and floating camera, weird cuts amid dialog scenes and wall-to-wall horrible music, like karaoke backing tracks to songs you don’t know but also at one point “Hey Man Nice Shot”. In 2001. The basic cohesion required to make a movie like this fun, even eye-rolling cheesy fun, is completely absent.

Summarizing the story isn’t easy, even though most of it is told to us directly via sports announcers. This is complicated further by the sheer number of relationships in the film, none of which get explored beyond introduction and conclusion. Everyone seems to know everyone else and have unspoken history with them, which makes you feel a bit lost at all times. Meanwhile, even the most obvious villains are set up to be likable, which would be commendable if anyone was, you know, likable. Instead, it confuses motivations all over the place.

Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot. Kip Pardue, who will make you miss the screen presence of Tommy Morrison from ROCKY V, plays Jimmy Bly, an up and coming race car driver in direct competition with Til Schweiger’s Beau Brandenburg. But he’s fucking up. So Burt Reynolds gets rid of his co-driver (I don’t fully understand the support situation, so co-driver will have to suffice) Memo in favor of bringing Stallone’s Joe Tanto out of retirement, I guess to be a co-driver, co-mentor. I assure you I did watch this movie and took notes.

It takes about an hour for Tanto to start mentoring the kid, which he does after a wild street chase through Chicago and seems to be little more than an impassioned speech about wanting pure victory. Kip honestly doesn’t seem to care about racing, or even be good at it. 

Things get complicated further Sophia Simone’s character Estella, who is dating Beau but leaves him because he is too into driving and immediately starts dating Kip, but then leaves Kip to get back with Beau the moment Beau apologizes for being too into driving. That’s her whole arc.

Meanwhile, Stallone starts dating a reporter. Once it’s established they are dating, I don’t think she speaks again. His ex-wife, Gina Gershon’s Cathy, is still around because she jumped from him to this Memo guy, who Stallone just replaced. She and Memo are a good pair. Nothing happens with any of this stuff.

While you’re trying to figure all that out, let’s look at Stallone’s situation in general. This is a really strange role for him, coming at a time when he really did not know what to do with himself. Five years later we’d see him play an aged Rocky Balboa, but here he isn’t playing quite as old - past his prime and not the action center of the film, sure, but young enough that you keep thinking DRIVEN will switch gears and make him the hero.

Instead, he does nothing. It's wild that Stallone wrote himself such a nothing role. As a driver, I guess he is supposed to support Kip. I just don’t know how that works. The one time it makes sense (Joe is told to take a pit stop and emerge just in time to physically block Beau), he has a big moral problem with it. Fine, maybe we just enjoy seeing the guy instead of understanding what his role is. Sorry, in all the racing scenes everyone is covered except for their eyes. Stallone’s eyes are pretty recognizable, but I wouldn’t say they can deliver a vital performance all by themselves. He has two major acting scenes, one yelling at the kid and one yelling at Burt Reynolds. Both are let down by poor writing.

It’s interesting that between this and ROCKY V, Stallone had a sense of being over the hill and tried to transition into mentor roles. Much later, he would. We just weren’t ready for it yet, and neither was he. He simply looks too good. We missed out on an amazing Stallone era during these years - not quite an old man yet, but not as vain or scrawny either.

DRIVEN just rolls along, making no sense for one scene only to continue making no sense in the next. Eventually it ends. You really have to grasp hard onto the moments that work. Usually that’s action. Unfortunately, DRIVEN’s racing scenes have little energy and occasionally get marred further by unfortunate CG touches. The Chicago chase is a good example. The kid knocks a CG tire at Stallone, which misses his head by an inch, and the effect is laughable. The closest it can get to wit is when a drive-by blows a lady’s skirt up or causes the glass at a bus stop to shatter.

There are some good wrecks. One, starring the film’s best character Memo, utilizes a great slow motion technique as we watch the ground meet the car through its doomed cockpit. Another car ramps like twenty feet into the air and looks exciting, even if you have no idea who is driving or if it matters.

The film's best moment is simple: Burt Reynolds tells Stallone “Don’t glare John, it makes your eyes look small.” It’s a great line. So there is at least one.