Screenplay : Sylvester Stallone
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Sylvester Stallone(Joe Tanto), Kip Pardue (Jimmy Blye), Til Schweiger (Beau Brandenburg), Burt Reynolds (Carl Henry), Stacy Edwards (Lucretia Clan), Estella Warren (Sophia Simone), Gina Gershon (Cathy), Robert Sean Leonard (Demille Blye), Cristián de la Fuente (Memo Moreno)
As an action movie, Renny Harlin's Driven isn't very good. It isn't very good as a human drama, either. But, as a thinly disguised allegory for the fading career of action star Sylvester Stallone, who both stars in and wrote the movie, it is a perversely enjoyable ride filled with retro pleasures and immense camp potential. Straight-out action fans might be wowed to a limited extent by the hyperbolic high-speed race sequences and Harlin's emphatic use of point-of-view shots during violent car wrecks, but it is those viewers with a sense of detached irony and twisted humor who will enjoy Driven the most.
The movie is set against the background of the high-stakes globalized sport of Formula One racecar driving, whose 900 million annual spectators make it the most popular sport in the world. This is emphasized through the movie's constant locale shifting, from U.S. cities like Detroit and Chicago, to foreign countries like Japan, Germany, Australia. Although locations change, the rabid fans are still the same, as is the culture of mass consumption of food, drink, and outright spectacle (both the 250-mile-an-hour car races and the many shapely women in tight clothing that seem to be everywhere).
Stallone stars as Joe Tanto, an aging driver who is brought out of retirement by franchise owner Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds) to help out Jimmy Blye (Kip Pardue of Remember the Titans), a young rookie driver with great potential that is too often undermined by his significant self-doubt. Everyone wants a piece of Jimmy, including his domineering brother-manager, Demille (Robert Sean Leonard), who sees him as a cash gold mine.
Jimmy's main competition is Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger), the reigning champion who looks like a European fashion model and speaks like Peter Lorre. Jimmy and Beau become even closer competitors when Beau dumps his fiance, Sophia (Estella Warren), who then begins spending time Jimmy. Beau's reason for dumping Sophia is not that he doesn't love her, but because she is a distraction to his racing career. Sophia, for her part, never stops carrying a torch for Beau, even though she travels everywhere with Jimmy as his "friend."
To get a full sense of what Stallone is trying to accomplish in Driven,one has to think back to the original Rocky (1976). Remember that, despite its status as the ultimate underdog movie, the titular boxing hero in Rocky loses at the end. Perhaps it is because he is victorious at the end of the all the sequels that we have somehow lost sight of the fact that Rocky was about the dogged glory of simply being able to compete, not the thrill of victory.
This is similar to Stallone's approach to Driven, in which all the male characters are somehow bruised and battered, emotionally and physically, but still push on toward an unknown destiny. Jimmy, for instance, is hailed as a new sensation, but it's inescapable that he's essentially a geek, which is emphasized by his awkwardness around women and general lack of confidence in himself (he is the utter antithesis of everything we imagine about cocky racecar drivers, like Tom Cruise inverted). Beau, on the other hand, is a hardened professional, but he is too cold and driven to the point that he loses his ability to connect with other people. Carl Henry, the Burt Reynolds character, may have power and money, but he bemoans the fact that he is paralyzed from the waist down and physically confined to a wheelchair.
This, of course, brings us to Stallone's character, who is the most battered of all. Aging and largely forgotten, Joe Tanto is a relic analogous to Stallone's action hero mold of the 1980s. Tanto's backstory is that he was once the king of the racecar circuit until he self-destructed over a period of six years, indulging in all his worst instincts (this is kept largely ambiguous, but it's not hard to read into). He not only destroyed his own career, but so alienated his ex-wife (Gina Gershon) that he literally turned her into a snarling she-wolf whose only goal in life is to hurt him. We are meant to have sympathy for Tanto because he is the aged man of experience who feels regret for his past mistakes and wants to help young Jimmy avoid following his path; similarly, we are meant to have sympathy for Stallone as an actor because he takes something of a backseat in the movie (despite his top billing), essentially saying, "I know I'm not the star anymore in a Matt Damon-Ben Affleck world."
It isn't hard to imagine what Driven would have been like had Stallone wrote it and starred in it 15 years ago. Stallone himself would have been the upstart rookie, and he probably would have cast himself as a fiery rebel who learns a lesson, yet is ultimately victorious in the end because of his sheer machismo. It is quite telling, then, that having been made today, Driven essentially sounds the final death knell of the old-style action hero. After all, here is Sylvester Stallone, the pinnacle of '80s action superstardom, the man who brought to life Rocky and Rambo, mythical movie heroes who survived on pure testosterone and an unwillingness to bend to the system, playing a man who is not only past his prime, but turned into another cog in the very system he would have once upended.
It's a strange feeling watching the movie because you don't feel so much like you're watching Joe Tanto repent for his previous sins as you are watching Sylvester Stallone repent for getting a big head and thinking he could pull off lame-brained comedies like Rhinestone (1984) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992), which, among his other excesses, led to the downfall of his career.
It is also telling, then, that in Driven there are victors, but no one winner. One character does win the world championship at the end, but he doesn't get the girl. The runner-up doesn't get the trophy, but he does get the girl, while a third character is simply enthused just to have placed. What Stallone does is essentially take all the movie conventions of the victors and the vanquished that previously fueled his career, and parcels them out among all the characters.
Those viewing the movie with a sense of history and irony won't have a hard time picking out these elements from beneath the pyrotechnic excesses of Renny Harlin's direction. Harlin was a perfect choice to helm this movie because, much like Stallone, he essentially deep-sixed himself by overreaching. Once a credible action director of films like Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993), he gambled and lost big on his pirate movie debacle Cutthroat Island (1995). Since then, he has been making semi-ironic, so-bad-they're-good flicks like The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and Deep Blue Sea (1999), all of which are immensely enjoyable, but completely vacuous. Driven fits that mold very well, with its overabundance of hyper-visual stylings and awkward melodramatic overkill. But, the subtext of Stallone's career kicks the movie up another notch for those who are willing to see it as something more than just an overcooked racecar movie.
©2001 James Kendrick