Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Driven (2001)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - Welcome to The Human Race

A veteran, open-wheel racing driver is teamed with a talented but unfocused rookie in this exciting tale of speed and spectacle shot on location at championship races around the world and using state-of-the-art effects to strap viewers into the driver's seat. Sylvester Stallone stars in this actionfest from the director of Cliffhanger and Deep Blue Sea.

Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Kip Pardue, Til Schweiger, Burt Reynolds, Stacy Edwards, Estella Warren, Gina Gershon, Robert Sean Leonard
Box Office: Budget: $72 million. Opening Weekend: $12.174 million (2905 screens). domestic Gross: $32.616 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1; subtitles English, French, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 34 chapters; rated PG-13; 117 min.; $24.98; 9/18/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary With Director Renny Harlin; Deleted Scenes with Audio Commentary By Sylvester Stallone; Behind-the-Scenes Documentaries “The Making of Driven” and “Conquering Speed Through Live Action and Visual Effects”; Trailer; Cast and Filmmakers.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A-/A-

For one brief shining moment, the spring of 2001 looked like it might mark a renaissance for faded action heroes. First Steven Seagal scored a minor hit with Exit Wounds, and then Sylvester Stallone came out with Driven about a month later. Both stirred up some decent publicity because they debuted at number one for their opening weekends. However, their numbers won’t dazzle many. Wounds grabbed $18 million during its first three days, while Driven snagged a mere $12 million; the former ultimately earned a modest $51 million in the US, while Driven took in only $32 million when all was said and done.

Given the movie’s $72 million budget, you’ll forgive my lack of enthusiasm for Stallone’s “comeback”. Exactly how many big-budget attempts will studios give him before they finally pull the plug? Between Driven and Get Carter, $112 million was spent on Stallone vehicles but just $46 million of that made it into studio coffers via the US box office. The last Stallone flick that even remotely resembled a hit was 1993’s Cliffhanger, and even that offering only grabbed $84 million of a $65 million budget.

Still, that’s much better than anything since, though at least 1997’s Copland turned a profit; it only earned $44 million, but with a mere $15 million budget, that wasn’t half bad. Nonetheless, Copland didn’t restore Stallone to his old luster, so he continues to churn out “comeback” action films. Driven probably sounded like his best bet, as it reunited him with Cliffhanger’s director Renny Harlin.

Although I didn’t care for that film, it looks like a classic compared to the shallow Driven. This film concentrates on the go-go world of auto racing. At its start we meet a mix of drivers. These include reigning champion Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger) and young hotshot Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue). The latter needs a role model to inspire him to greatness, so team owner Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds) brings in worn-out old raced Joe Tanto (Sylvester Stallone) to show him the ropes.

As this occurs, Beau breaks up with fiancée Sophia (Estella Warren), and Jimmy tries to move in on her. Joe also attempts to cozy up to Luc (Stacy Edwards), a reporter trying to cover the scene. Joe’s ex-wife Cathy (Gina Gershon) also pops in and out events along with her new husband Memo (Cristián de la Fuente), the driver Joe replaced on the team.

Essentially the film follows these folks as they flit from race to race in a variety of different locales. We go to Chicago, Toronto, Japan, Germany and elsewhere. The plot thickens as Jimmy has trouble adjusting to the lifestyle, and Joe tries to get him into the winner’s circle.

Actually, the plot doesn’t thicken as much as it congeals. It’s a very tired tale and Harlin does little to give it new life. If anything, his work makes the film less exciting and enjoyable than it could have been. With virtually every Harlin movie I’ve seen, I’ve felt that he actively harmed the material. To be sure, some of his flicks are fairly entertaining, but they always feel much less satisfying than they could or should have been.

That emotion accompanies Driven in spades. Virtually no aspect of this movie works, with the occasional exception of the racing scenes. Some of those are moderately exciting, and they give the movie its only signs of life. However, even those scenes lack a great deal of pizzazz. For one, Harlin offers so many obnoxious gimmicks that the natural drama becomes obscured. He’s so fascinated with the cheesy computer graphics that he doesn’t bother to worry about the true action. Instead, we see silly “driver cams” that distort the image to show us what it’s “really” like behind the wheel. This technique quickly becomes a distraction and it adds absolutely nothing to the tale.

Most of the racing shots are compiled in a nearly incoherent manner. They fail to distinguish between participants, and they become so encumbered by “innovative” visual techniques that all sense of speed or thrill disappears. Harlin appears to be so concerned with doing things differently that he doesn’t bother to think if they make any sense.

His essential lack of inspiration comes through via the overall presentation of the races. All appear in the same manner. Announcers relate information about them as we see title cards that list city names and we watch preparations. These invariably include lots of shots of sexy, scantily-clad young women, and a pounding score blasts the “excitement” into our brains. I have no objection to images of hot women, but the redundancy of these introductions becomes mind-numbing. It also makes the sequences much less effective, for we never feel that any of the contests differ from the others. They all look and sound the same, and there’s no sense of change.

As such, all of the racing scenes completely blend together. The only exception comes with the movie’s minor highlight, a chase through the streets of Chicago. Jimmy steals a racecar from a party and Joe goes after him. At times, this sequence offers some fun, but as always, Harlin ruins it with cheesy gimmicks. We have to watch silly comedy along the way, none of which adds to the experience.

Harlin’s problems as a director become even clearer when we examine the characters. Each and every one of them seems bland and ill-defined. Technically I think Jimmy’s supposed to be the lead, though Stallone’s star-billing should place him in that spot. Whatever the case may be, no one appears to want to lead this field. All of the actors are saddled with tremendously bad dialogue as they generally speak in clichés and catch phrases.

Stallone wrote the piece, so he’s partially to blame for these flaws, but I think Harlin deserves much of the responsibility as well. He consistently drives any personality out of his actors; even pros like Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson come across as somewhat bland and undistinguished in his hands. Considering that factor, none of the lesser knowns in Driven stand a chance.

Though he looks like the illegitimate love child of Beck and David Spade, Pardue showed some spark in 2000’s Remember the Titans. Any remnants of that presence evaporate here, as he seems bland and befuddled throughout the movie. It’s hard to believe he demonstrated any signs of charisma in the older film when you see his drab turn here. Newcomer Warren - who also appeared in the summer’s Planet of the Apes remake - looks gorgeous, but she fares no better, and Schweiger just comes across like a cranky Kraut.

As for the veterans in the flick, Reynolds seems to channel the spirit of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey from the Rocky flicks, though without the same success. Reynolds chews through so much scenery that I can’t believe any sets remained; even for him, this is an insanely over-the-top performance. Stallone, on the other hand, is more subdued, though not necessarily in a positive way. Sly’s not the most versatile actor; usually he finds an emotion he likes and gloms onto it. Here he goes with “sadness” through much of the film. He mainly looks glum.

Perhaps he’s smart enough to understand exactly what a terrible movie Driven is. Frankly, I don’t ask much of a movie like this. Give me some modestly interesting characters and some compelling action and I’m a happy boy. Driven fails on all these levels and others.

The DVD:

Driven appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. From Goonies to Graceland, Warner Bros. have run off a nice string of solid transfers lately, and Driven was no exception.

Sharpness seemed to be consistently strong. A few small bits were intentionally out of focus due to the film’s jittery style, but these were rare. Overall, the movie looked crisp and detailed. No moiré effects or jagged edges appeared, and I also detected no signs of edge enhancement. In regard to print flaws, I saw a speckle or two, but that was it; otherwise this was a clean and fresh transfer.

Colors appeared nicely natural and accurate. The film provided a varied and bright palette that consistently looked vivid and bold, with no problems related to bleeding, noise or other issues. Black levels were deep and rich, and shadow detail seemed to be appropriately heavy but not excessively opaque. All in all, Driven offered a fine visual experience.

Also very positive was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Driven. Not surprisingly, the movie employed an active soundfield that used all five channels to good advantage. The forward spectrum seemed to be very well-defined, as it provided positive stereo separation for music and effects moved cleanly and vividly across the channels. Localization sounded accurate and distinct, and the various elements appeared to be appropriately placed.

Surround usage was also quite strong, as the rears kicked in a lot of unique information of their own. Of course, the racing scenes were best, as cars sped all around the field. Some of the club scenes also created an active and involving environment.

Audio quality seemed to be consistently good, though not fantastic. Much of the dialogue clearly was looped, and it didn’t always integrate well with the rest of the track. However, speech remained acceptable distinct and crisp throughout the movie, and I heard no concerns related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects were always rich and vibrant, as the mix replicated them with fine fidelity. Low-end rumble really sounded strong throughout the movie in this regard. Music also usually seemed to be dynamic and bright, but oddly, I thought the bass response seemed a bit weak during a few race scenes. On occasion, the songs sounded a little flat during those segments. Nonetheless, the overall impression offered by Driven was of an active, involving track.

Driven tosses in a nice mix of extras, starting with a running audio commentary from director Renny Harlin. Harlin is a veteran of this kind of track, as he’s also provided commentaries for Die Hard 2, Deep Blue Sea and Cliffhanger. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make him a great speaker. Hey, Rob Reiner has recorded a slew of commentaries, but he remains a lackluster participant at best.

Harlin’s tracks tend to be somewhat mechanical, as he usually focuses on the technical aspects of filmmaking. While he definitely goes into those details - with a special focus on the use of CGI to bolster the racing scenes - he also discusses a variety of additional topics. Harlin gets into changes made from script to screen and tells us of the world of racing.

For the most part, Harlin proves to be a chatty guy. He starts to peter out toward the end of the film, which is the only period during which we hear moderate pauses. While Harlin fills the space and goes over a nice variety of subjects, I must admit that this track ultimately left me cold. Harlin talks a lot and may cover decent topics, but he’s simply not a very interesting guy; as with his films, the potential for positive material exists, but he somehow makes it somewhat dull. It’s not a bad commentary, but it didn’t do a whole lot for me.

Next we get two documentaries. Originally aired on HBO, The Making of Driven provides the kind of glossy, fluffy look at the film one expects from a promotional featurette. Over its 15 minutes, the show mixes film clips, sound bites from participants - mainly actors and Harlin - and shots from the set. The latter offer the program’s only distinguishing characteristics, as we actually get to see quite a lot of decent footage; it’s especially fun to see Harlin as he almost melts down from pressure to work quickly. Overall, it’s an average puff piece, but the semi-candid material makes it good.

Better is the next documentary, the awkwardly-titled Conquering Speed Through Live Action and Visual Effects. This nine-minute and 55-second piece covers various aspects of the special effects, but it strongly concentrates on computer imagery. We learn a little about a new car-mounted camera, but mainly it’s all about the CGI, and it’s a surprisingly deep program considering its length. We hear a lot about a scene that depicts a car fire, and the participants step through it in detail. It’s a nice view of the material.

A long collection of Deleted Scenes appears; all of these can be viewed either with the original production audio or with commentary from actor/writer Sylvester Stallone. The package starts with an introduction from Stallone and then provides 12 scenes. These last for a whopping total of 51 minutes and 40 seconds including the introduction. Virtually all of them offer extended renditions of existing segments, and all of them focus on Stallone’s character. They add some modest character exposition, but none of them seemed very interesting; they essentially embellished the final film but they didn’t make it any better or more compelling.

For the most part, Stallone proved to be a chatty participant during his commentary. Oddly, he left a large gap during the seventh scene, but otherwise he filled most of the space. Overall, his comments were mildly interesting. Since he wrote the film, he mainly discussed character-related issues as he put the roles into a greater context. That helped flesh them out a bit better, but they remained fairly dull. Nonetheless, this conversation offered some useful information, and folks who liked Driven should get a kick out of it.

A few minor extras round out the disc. We get the film’s theatrical trailer plus a promo for an upcoming Playstation 2 game based on the movie. The Cast and Crew area provides “selected” filmographies for Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Gina Gershon and director Renny Harlin. As usually occurs on WB DVDs, many other participants are listed but no additional information can be obtained.

As a DVD, Driven beautifully packages some lousy material. The movie’s a total dud, as director Renny Harlin totally beats any life or excitement out of the story. Since it’s a hackneyed and stale tale anyway, this leaves it nowhere to go, and the film comes across as a bland and monotonous journey with nothing thrilling or fun to spice up the events. The DVD offers terrific picture and sound, however, plus a surprisingly broad complement of supplements. If you like the film, then your purchase of Driven is a no-brainer; it’s a top-notch disc. If you haven’t seen the flick, however, I’d recommend you skip it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.1538 Stars Number of Votes: 117
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