[Screen It]

(2001) (Sylvester Stallone, Kip Pardue) (PG-13)

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Action/Drama: A seasoned racecar driver is called in to help a young driver through his rookie season as the latter tries to become the open-wheel racing champion of the year.
Jimmy Bly (KIP PARDUE) is the rookie racecar driver of the year in open wheel racing, a point that doesn't sit that well with the current champion, Beau Brandenburg (TIL SCHWEIGER), particularly since the two are locked in a heated battle to be this year's champ. As a result, Beau dumps his long-term girlfriend, Sophia Simone (ESTELLA WARREN), claiming she's a distraction to his focus.

In Bly's camp, team owner Carl Henry (BURT REYNOLDS), a former driver now confined to a wheelchair, decides to call in veteran driver Joe Tanto (SYLVESTER STALLONE) to replace the rookie's driving partner, Memo Moreno (CRISTIAN DE LA FUENTE). Joe hasn't driven in years, but Carl believes in him, particularly since they go back a long ways through the racing circuit together.

As Jimmy's manager and brother, DeMille (ROBERT SEAN LEONARD), tries to keep his sibling focused and away from Sophia, Joe deals with his still bitter ex-wife, Cathy (GINA GERSHON), who's married to Memo; an ambitious journalist, Lucretia "Luc" Clans (STACY EDWARDS), who wants to cover the sport and his return to it; and Carl's ruthless approach at winning.

With only ten races left in the season, Joe does what he can to deal with all of those and other external factors and complications, all while trying to help Jimmy grow as a racer and not forget what got him into racing in the first place.

OUR TAKE: 2.5 out of 10
With NASCAR and other auto racing being one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., it's surprising that we're not currently inundated with auto racing-based movies. Then again, racing's been around for quite a long time, and Hollywood has never really warmed to the idea of men driving repetitive laps around the track at several hundred miles per hour.

While car chase or fast car related movies are relatively easy to name ("Gone in 60 Seconds," "Bullit," the "Cannonball Run" and "Mad Max/Road Warrior" films are just a few of many), those that deal with professional drivers are less numerous. In fact, "Days of Thunder," the 1990 film that brought together Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, is probably the last and possibly the only auto racing film that most viewers can name (others are "Le Mans," "Heart Like a Wheel" and "Stroker Ace" just FYI), and even it wasn't a huge blockbuster.

Despite the millions of fans and increased TV coverage, the release of the Formula One/CART inspired "Driven" may mean it will be a long time before Hollywood returns to the track again. A contrived, hackneyed and generally overblown and pointless production, this is the sort of film that gives big-budget, Hollywood films a bad name.

Of course, the potential of such a film is severely limited in the first place. While most every non-documentary film covering any sport includes off the track/field/court personal material, competition and/or love stories - and this entry is no exception - racing films seem particularly limited in nature and premise. After all, the cars go around and around, there are some obligatory and spectacular crashes, and someone wins by a nose. Off the track, there's the seasoned pro, the hardnosed and competitive jerk, and the green but talented rookie, as well as their significant others and cutthroat management teams, all of which lend themselves for the potential of some melodramatic, soap opera moments.

Despite the unavoidable, inherent and limited "been there, seen that" material, the fact that the film reunites the director and star/writer of "Cliffhanger" - namely Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone respectively - should give the viewer some hope that perhaps they might be able to inject some life into the proceedings.

While that accurately titled action film clearly was no Oscar contender, it was something of a thrill ride that offered plenty of high-octane action. Unfortunately, while there's octane also present in this film, it's only buried in the cars and not the screenplay itself, which Stallone just so happened to write as well (working from an original story by Neal Tabachnick & Jan Skrentny).

Trotting out every stereotype and contrivance that one could imagine - not to mention some of the lamest, most ludicrous and just plain awful dialogue to assault one's ears in some time -- the film manages to be less than involving, boring, and dramatically inert despite the subject matter and the hundreds or thousands of cuts and visual effects that permeate the offering.

In fact, if there ever was a case study of attempting to hide the absence of substance with style, this is it. Employing the MTV approach - nonstop rock music (often even under dialogue), various shots of shapely women, and enough cuts to get his money's worth out of dual editors Steve Wilson (marking his feature film debut) and Stuart Levy ("Any Given Sunday," "Living Out Loud"), director Harlin ("Deep Blue Sea," "The Long Kiss Goodnight") seems to be wanting to do to auto racing what Oliver Stone did with football in "Any Given Sunday."

Unfortunately, Harlin is no Stone and his attempts at further energizing the sport - through real racing footage and plenty of computer effects - results in not much more than a hyperkinetic catalyst for inducing headaches. It's debatable whether the director originally planned to do the full frontal assault on the senses - any given lap around a track, let alone a race, can't stand on its own, but must be pumped up with distracting edits and special effects - or that he merely scrambled to cover the fact that Stallone's script was lacking in both muscle and brains.

The end result - which seems like a major step backwards for the director - is not in question, however, and this film can't avoid the fact that it's running on fumes and flat tires, and never gets out of first gear, at least from an engaging dramatic standpoint.

Surprisingly enough, the filmmakers seem to have been thinking that they were making an engrossing and even profound drama, what with the "inspirational" lines of dialogue and looks of earnestness on various performers' faces. Yet, this is one of those films that becomes sillier the more it tries to be series and dramatic, and many viewers at our screening were giggling or breaking out into boisterous laughter at what was presumably supposed to be the film's heartfelt, lump in the throat moments.

When not questioning the validity of racing a Formula One style race during a downpour (evidently staged to add more dramatic suspense as well as computer generated rain drop effects on the drivers' visors), I spent my time trying to pick out the "best" awful piece of dialogue, but there were so many I think I'd nearly have to quote the entire film lest I slight any one particular bit.

To no one's surprise, the performances are as contrived and clichéd as the rest of the film. At what's looking like the twilight of his action/adventure years, Sylvester Stallone ("Cop Land," the "Rocky" and "Rambo" films) creates the seasoned, but humble racecar driver who will no doubt remind you of many other such characters the actor has played throughout his career. If you've liked them, you'll feel the same about this one, while the reverse also holds true.

Burt Reynolds ("The Crew," "Boogie Nights") plays the ruthless and mean owner role with zest, but without any endearing coach-style mannerisms or inspirational speeches to make him interesting, let alone human (the fact that he's in a wheelchair doesn't do that and seems too forced). Meanwhile, Til Schweiger ("Judas Kiss," "The Replacement Killers") plays the Ice Man role from "Top Gun," but his eventual softening also feels nothing short of contrived which also holds true for the character played by Robert Sean Leonard ("The Last Days of Disco," "Much Ado About Nothing") whose mean-spirited actions are supposed to be accepted or at least softened by a late in the game speech.

Kip Pardue ("Remember the Titans," "But I'm a Cheerleader") is decent as the rookie driver and comes off as the most sympathetic character, but the various female roles all fall into the throw away variety. Much of the material regarding Stacy Edwards ("Black and White," "In the Company of Men") as a journalist covering the race feels tacked on and/or as if much of it was left on the cutting room floor (particularly regarding her "relationship" with Stallone's character). Model turned actress Estella Warren (the remake of "Planet of the Apes") plays a dumped girlfriend who sticks around the racing circuit for no good reason other than to create a love triangle of sorts, while Gina Gershon ("Face/Off," "Bound"), despite going into full bitchy vamp mode, is completely wasted.

That's pretty much how you'll feel about two hours of your life after watching this frenetic but ultimately boring flick. Beyond some occasionally interesting visuals, the film offers absolutely nothing worthwhile to the already dramatically limited racing genre, unless you get some perverse satisfaction out of watching bad direction, writing, and often wooden performances. "Driven" rates as a 2.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 23, 2001 / Posted April 27, 2001

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