USA 2001
director : Renny Harlin
script : Sylvester Stallone
producers include : Stallone, Harlin, Elie Samaha
cinematography : Mauro Fiore
editing : Stuart Levy
music : BT (Brian Transeau)
lead actors : Kip Pardue, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Til Schweiger
117 minutes

Just as many ghouls watch Formula 1 motor-racing for the crashes, Driven is dire enough to attract rubbernecking aficionados of car-wreck movies. It makes The Fast and the Furious look like Duel – but this isn’t an awful movie in the same vein as, say, Lara Croft : Tomb Raider, which was presumably intended to be good. Here, it’s impossible to ditch the suspicion that director Harlin is actually having a laugh: lampooning the world of CART racing, and trying to capture the full horror of its crassness by being similarly crass himself.

Then again, perhaps he just look at Stallone’s ridiculous “script”, pocketed his fee and set out to go as far over the top as possible, crafting a diabolically OTT hymn to “the brotherhood of speed,” tipping over into a realm beyond bad – on the basis that neither Stallone nor any of the other numb-nut producers would mind or notice.

Harlin is a talented director (Prison, Elm St 4, Long Kiss Goodnight), one whose busy filmography makes it clear he doesn’t have to use this bad-advert, faux-MTV style. His sleazy “tits and ass” shots, blatant product placement, bad CGI effects and relentless deafening muzak are, we must conclude, entirely deliberate: conscious, calculated choices. Right from the clumsily confusing opening titles, we’re bombarded with on idiot-level on-screen titles, and some hilariously redundant, over-excited ESPN commentary. These summarise the plot so far, describe what we’re seeing, then provides instant recap, mainly in words of one syllable.

Not that it’s ever hard to follow what’s going on: the wafer-thin ‘plot’ pits rookie Jimmy Bly (Pardue) against reigning champ, German ‘iceman’ Beau Brandenburg (Schweiger as an old-schule Teuton baddie). When his form dips, his team manager (Reynolds) asks retired star Joe Tanto (Stallone) to help the youngster with his form both on the track and off. Jimmy and Beau’s rivalry is given extra edge when Jimmy falls for Beau’s ex-girlfriend (Estella Warren), while Joe’s budding relationship with ‘journalist’ Lucretia (Stacy Edwards) isn’t helped by the presence of his bitchy ex-wife (Gina Gershon), who’s now married to another driver (Cristian de la Fuente) …

Characterisation is, at best, sketchy. We’re told that Lucretia is researching “an expose on male dominance in sports,” and wonder if this may be an amusing in-joke nod to her startling turn from In The Company of Men, that searing ‘expose of male dominance’ in the workplace. No such luck – Lucretia is one of those lucky movie journalists who never does a stroke of work, instead losing herself in contemplation of Stallone’s Victor Mature-ish charms. Pardue makes little impact in what could have been a breakthrough role – he comes across like a buttery-faced younger version of James Spader, which presumably wasn’t the intention. This is exactly the kind of role which could propel a more talented young actor – Shane West or, even better, a James DeBello – towards the stardom they deserve.

If anything, Driven seems to be made by people who can’t stand motor racing – in what’s probably an accurate bit of movie anthropology, Harlin makes all the CART locations look pretty much identical. Apart from one well-edited montage of Tokyo nightlife, we see very little of the host cities, and the race fans are an eerily homogenous bunch – leggy lovelies in revealing outfits; boorish rednecks wolfing down their local versions of fast food. It’s an interchangeable cars-n-burgers-n-babes playground, with the racers idolised like tinpot gods.

It’s impossible to tell whether Harlin is celebrating this glossy, airheaded world or ripping it apart – satirical intent seems plain during what must be this year’s daftest movie scene, with Bly and Tanto racing prototype racing cars through the busy Chicago streets, zipping past regular traffic at 195mph, shattering glass and causing a woman’s dress to fly up and reveal her panties, Marilyn Monroe style. But when Harlin himself pops up in a boys-n-toys Don Simpson-style cameo as a driver, you have to confront the unpalatable possibility that this may not be a colossal piss-take after all.

26th September, 2001 (seen Sep-25-01, Warner Village, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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