Driven

Hi, how are you? Do you think you can push it to the ragged edge?
★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2001
Director: 
Renny Harlin
Starring: 
Sylvester Stallone, Kip Pardue, Estella Warren, Burt Reynolds
The Setup: 
Has the new racer got what it takes?
Discussion: 

This has always been on my list--in retrospect I can't say rightly why--although I think it has something to do with how fun movies like Torque and Con Air were, and I have to admit I had hoped this movie would be ridiculous, overblown fun in that vein. Hmmm, not so much. It's just too scattered and nothing is that ludicrous, or overblown. Plus it just doesn't stay with one thread or character long enough to be much of anything.

So we open at the track where we introduce a bunch of characters. There is German fellow Beau Brandenburg, current champion, and the hot new racing star, Billy Bly, played by the phenomenon of Kip Pardue. Bly (and Beau? I confess I don't get it) are owned by Burt Reynolds as Carl Henry, who is wheelchair-bound. Bly is managed by Robert Sean Leonard (RSL), who I confess it was nice to see again, especially as he is successfully playing a total dick. We note from the credits that we will also be treated to appearances by Estella Warren and Gina Gershon. Hopes are also raised by the information that the screenplay was written by Stallone, whose writing work on Staying Alive and Rhinestone brought such wicked joy. Poor Stallone has been searching for something to do since Rocky, and this movie seems like just that; another try at him attempting to place himself in something new, this time by sliding into a supporting, coach role.

So this is apparently CART racing, not NASCAR, which I suppose will mean something to someone. First thing that happens is that Beau breaks off his engagement to Warren as Cynthia (which may not be her correct name, but who cares?) because he has to concentrate on racing, and can't be distracted by her dewy punanny. He says "racing is my life," and she simpers "Then what am I?" She leaves her engagement ring next to his helmet to prove that she's not all about the money. Meanwhile Bly is buckling under the pressure and wants to get away and reconnect with himself, but RLS keeps forcing him to do publicity and generally working him to death, except when he has to suddenly turn and appear like he cares. Bly has to win this next race or, you know, something bad, but he tries too hard and ends up spinning out on the roadway.

So after the race Carl (that's Reynolds) calls Joe (Stallone), who has retired to the typical gorgeous lakefront house where he restores cars in his barn. Hopes were briefly raised for this film's fun factor as we have this dialogue. Carl is looking at a pic of him and Stallone in the old days, and says "I was just feeling nostalgic. (silence.) Still there? (silence.) Do you think you can push it to the ragged edge?" Joe: "Yeah, I think so." Carl: "And the fear?" I wish more everyday conversations took such sudden turns into the existential. "Hey, I liked the cute cat pics you posted on Facebook. Do you think you can push it to the ragged edge?" or "I just took the most fabulous vacation to Fort Lauderdale!" "And the fear?"

So back to the track, where we find Bly training by playing a computer racing simulator on a laptop that, well, I don't think that's going to be a lot of help. By now we've noticed that the corporate logos are out of control, which the movie can conveniently say is endemic to the milieu, and also the soundtrack is out of control, with a new pop song starting every few seconds. There must be at least 50 songs heard throughout the movie. So Joe comes to the track, where he has lots of old friends because of his past, and is annoyed to find that Carl only wants him to be a supporting driver. There's apparently this whole team structure on the track which, frankly, I didn't quite understand. Joe meets this journalist, who looks like an American Juliette Binoche, named Lucretia, or Luke for short. She's on hand to provide a love interest for Joe that is responsibly out of her teens, but still inappropriately decades younger. Joe does a test run on the track that amazes everyone with his skill, and we have a few glimpses of "Joe-vision," which is when he's using the force to navigate the track because he has a sixth sense and becomes one with his vehicle, and, I shit you not, Joe-vision arrives in shades of bright red, white and blue. I was going to supply a photo, but the disc died in my computer.

Then we're at some rooftop nightclub where Estella Warren comes in wearing a white shirt with only one button done, allowing us ample opportunity to peruse her cleavage. We then cut away briefly to Stallone and Luke, then, when we return to the scene, Warren is wearing a black tank top. I guess she went and changed. There is some yap-yap, and by the end of the scene she is Bly's girlfriend. Soon Gina Gerson shows up in her trashy, cocky, insinuating persona, causing me to have a moment of pure love for all that is Gina Gershon. She's the fucking best. I think she won my heart in the Jim Thompson adaptation This World, Then The Fireworks, when it became apparent that she's a smart cookie playing trashy hussies (which she continued in the Thompson-inspired Killer Joe). She's on hand long enough to establish that Joe dumped her, and she's still plenty bitter, but is salving her wounds with the attentions of some other muscle himbo, named Moose or something. Moose is on hand long enough to have a "no hard feelings" talk with Joe, then he vanishes for a long stretch. In here an anonymous racer has a spectacular crash, and you'll notice that the fake driver is bolted in, and doesn't move an inch even as the car is flying end over end. You'll also notice that in all the track scenes, there are numerous shots leering at the tits and asses of hot women lingering around the track.

Then we're in Japan, whereupon we discover that Cynthia is a synchronized swimmer! Ummm, okay. I read on IMDb that this is because Warren actually used to be a synchronized swimmer, and they just thought they'd throw it in, and since the script is such a narrative melange anyway, who'll even notice? We return to the track with the requisite leering at boobs (more difficult to manage in Japan) and for a while (around 48 minutes in) the film becomes this quasi-narrative blur of flashes and footage with only the slightest cohesion. There is a race, in which Bly is starting to feel overwhelmed by like, the pressure and stuff, and he has a serious accident that reduces his car to atoms, but leaves him without a scratch! Pretty amazing, and he's not really even shaken by it. In here you'll notice Warren doing her best to make "concerned" faces, and barely reacting at all as her boyfriend is nearly reduced to a bloody smear.

Then we're off to Chicago, where we have a big party, and Cynthia talks to Beau for a second and then--dumps Bly and goes back to Beau! Just like that! It's a hard-knock, turn-on-a-dime emotional world out there for these racers. Cynthia then all but vanishes from the film. We also have Gershon show up to sling some sullen attitude, the kind of thing she could do in her sleep. Then Bly takes one of the racing cars out onto the streets of Chicago, pursued by Joe, and they drive through normal traffic at 150 MPH, endangering numerous lives, but whatever, it's AWESOME! Or, it is if you're really dumb. When it's over, they have a heart to heart and by the time they're done, Joe is Bly's mentor.

In here my disc started skipping, meaning that it would freeze, then suddenly jump to five or ten minutes ahead in the film. I considered this a blessing. By now one is starting to notice the distinct lack of something here... and that would be any kind of thematic cohesion. We have a bunch of characters, we have too many characters, too many stories, and none of them are really going anywhere. When Cynthia dumps Bly and then vanishes from the film, and Bly is barely affected at all, that really tips its hand that this film just doesn't have anything holding it together. I think it's supposed to be a wide-angle view on life at the track, a sort of Nashville of CART racing, but that approach requires a very delicate hand and without it, you just have an aimless vehicle drifting on an undefined course. Which is what's developing here.

Anyway, next race, and Moose or whoever from earlier suddenly comes out of the background. He is to replace Joe in the race, because Joe is getting too involved, but he is supposed to be one of those mysterious supporting racers which the movie is vague about. But get this--even though Moose is supposed to just linger back and be track fodder, he actually tries to WIN the race! In here you might start to question why the girlfriends get to be right alongside the owner and manager with a microphone to talk to the driver, but you'll also note that Gershon is capable of conveying concern when her boyfriend crashes, something that eluded Warren. Yes, Moose crashes, popping up into the air as all the cars pass beneath him (it's a not-bad moment that conveys the surreality of a crash), then is propelled, flaming, off the track and into a nearby pond.

Well then, our buddy Bly gives up the race and runs to the pond to save Moose! BUT! The flimsy tree is on fire, and fuel is pouring into the pond! And Bly can't turn the car over by himself, to free Moose! THEN! Brandenburg gives up the race, and runs to help as well! I think what we're seeing here is TEAMWORK. They turn the car over, and free Moose, and get him to shore, JUST in time before the flaming tree falls into the fuel-filled pond and the whole thing EXPLODES! All of this is captured on television, and in case there are any viewers who didn't catch the thematic importance of what just happened, the announcer says: "It just demonstrates the fiber of these men... They worked as a team together."

Uh-oh, now it seriousness time. Sad face. Bly and Joe go see Moose in the hospital. Bly is in another room, where he is visited by Brandenberg. Then Carl tells Joe (by the burned car, a few feet from the pouring rain) that he's dropping Bly like a hot potato and taking up Brandenberg. This is because he doesn't have the ruthless instinct to WIN, even though he gave up the race to save his fellow man! Cruel, harsh world. We also find out that RSL is Bly's BROTHER! Now, maybe I wasn't following every nuance of this film (I wasn't exactly sleeping, either) and I think it's kind of a problem when I find out in the last 20 minutes of a movie that these characters who have been with us from the beginning are actually brothers. RSL is dropping Bly, too--his own brother! But look man, you gotta push it to the ragged edge, blah, blah.

So now Bly is limping around the track in a supportive boot, then, next thing you know, in shoes and convincing Carl to let him race. Carl makes him hop ten times on his bad foot, which just seems needlessly cruel. By the way, I had foot surgery and I know that 1) those things don't just heal in days, as they make it seem here, and 2) you are NOT going to be hopping on your injured foot, no matter how bad you want to push it to the ragged edge. I was just going to say I notice we never see these guys handicapped later--but there is Carl, in his wheelchair (although we never find out how he got that way). Regardless, Bly is allowed to race.

We're now in Detroit, which the movie takes pains to make look like a teeming metropolis and not like a blighted wasteland. Also remarkably, almost no one we see attending the race is black. After a bunch more leering at women, the race starts, rather vaguely. This is the big ending race, you'd think it would have a notable start, but not really. We also find out that if Bly wins, he will be the world champion, which also was a bit of a surprise. Anyway, there are a bunch of early crashes, we montage through the first few laps, and it's down to Joe, Bly, and Brandenberg. Intercut here are a number of shots of people off the track, Carl, Warren, Joe's memoirist girlfriend, RSL, and in every single instance you'll notice the camera is tracking slowly by them. Really formula.

Joe shows that he COULD have won, after jumping his car in front of Brandenberg's, causing the commenters to say "I can't believe what I just saw!" and you to agree, because it was so obviously computer-generated. That proven, Joe drops back and let's Bly win. There is a moment where Bly is arbitrarily messing up, then Joe's voice comes in and Bly uses The Force. He begins to see the track in racer-vision, like Joe, and he wins! Bly is now the world champion, because he is DRIVEN. The end.

I think the best way to sum up is: if you rent this film, you know what you're in for. And you get it. I'm not a huge fan of racing, so I don't have any inherent interest in the subject, but even so, it was remarkable how unexciting the racing sequences were. I watched the special effects making-of special (you'd be surprised how many of the racing sequences were entirely computer-generated), and it has Renny Harlin talking about how he wanted to portray racing as no one has seen it and... ummm, maybe? To me it was pretty boring. Just a bunch of quick cuts and computer-created shots where we go into the rear-view mirror of one car to see another, I don't know, it all seemed quite standard, Michael Bay-lite. The making-of special spends about ten minutes discussing a particularly difficult shot that I don't even remember from the film. The rest is exactly what you know you're in for, what with he grizzled old pros, the cutthroat world, the leering at women, the need to push it to the ragged edge, etc.

It's making me ask what I wanted to get out of watching this? Well, I was hoping it would be a lot more ridiculous, like Torque. I was hoping the cliches and characters and sequences would be more fun and over the top, in an amusing way, but it's all a little grimly straightforward (if entertaining). Once I realized it was going to be not all that bad, but not be wildly ridiculous and hilariously exaggerated, the reality that I had a full two hours of this crap in front of me was a little hard to face.

The best that can be said is that it could be worse, although it's nowhere near as fun, and as bad-fun, as I was hoping for. It's kind of exactly what it looks like, and it's two long hours of it. But at least it has Gina Gershon.

Should you watch it: 

I wouldn't.