Monday, May 21, 2018
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Driven: Stallone's racing drama has lots of action, little humanity

Driven stars Sylvester Stallone, who, since emerging from action-star hibernation, has developed the power to hear what you're thinking: Oh, cripes, not him again.

Sly did the morning TV rounds recently, and he sheepishly told Diane Sawyer that, gosh, after Rocky, he should have tried harder, been more ambitious. Instead he "rested on laurels."

Driven, his new professional auto-racing drama, he explained, is a return to form.

No one would do it, so he created himself a character who doesn't save the day.

But when Stallone is the only subtle thing in an action flick, start checking your watch. He wrote the screenplay, and while he knows how to use himself, the rest is proof that you can take the star out of the 1980s, but you can't take the 1980s out of the star.

We're returned to those thrilling days of bigger-hair, and a familiar formulaic power ballad-heavy filmmaking style that hasn't aged well.

A decade ago, Tom Cruise would have made this movie. In fact, he made three films that are much like it. In Days of Thunder (1990), Cruise plays a naive but talented young man who overcomes fears to master auto racing; in Top Gun (1986), Cruise plays a naive but talented young man who overcomes fears to master fighter jets; and in Cocktail (1988), Cruise plays a naive but talented young man who overcomes fears to master a martini shaker.

In Driven, Kip Pardue (Remember the Titans) has the Cruise role, and Sly gets to be Yoda.

Stallone plays Joe Tanto, a former racing pro tugged out of retirement to coach the undisciplined young star Jimmy Bly (Pardue). Stallone spends most of the movie on the sidelines, giving long speeches about faith and spirit and finding oneself and some other stuff that Sting got to first. He almost kisses the girl, a reporter played by Stacy Edwards. He doesn't shoot the sort-of bad guy, his old coach (Burt Reynolds).

There are no bad guys. Director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger) aggressively weans the humanity from Driven, stripping it down to some long scenes of exposition, laced with a few racing scenes.

Harlin drops us in the cockpits, giving us the sensation of driving at 250 miles per hour, creating a tunnel of blur that ends in a pinprick of clear pavement. But he also overedits the scenes into incomprehension. The cars, like the drivers, are given no personality, and are covered with so many product endorsements it's hard to tell what's what. Toss in overbearing announcer voices (who redundantly explain what we just watched), digital special effects, and a pounding electronica score, and you get the frustrated feeling of watching someone else play a video game.

Sly doesn't even get to win the big race. After a shapeless season that jets from Tokyo to Detroit to Rio, the championship comes down to Jimmy and his rival, Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger), the most unintentionally funny character in years.

Beau is German. He barely moves five facial muscles. Just to remind you how cold he is, he breaks up with pouty Sophia, a supermodel played by supermodel Estella Warren. Introducing the unnecessary-but-inevitable romantic subplot, Sophia proves herself a strong woman by gunning for Jimmy's heart, seducing him with (seriously) a synchronized swimming routine. Nothing shall come between Jimmy and Beau, however, and when duty calls, everyone works together to save a fellow racer whose car is leaking gas - "um, that's fuel" Sly reminds us, "not gas." (Remember, he's meek.)

Nobody expected brains here, but Driven should at least capture what's exciting about professional auto racing. Or offer a sense of a racer's life. Instead, a routine sports movie plot gets shoehorned in, and the only time the movie lets loose is in one great scene, a 195 mph race through the streets of Chicago. Stallone and Pardue rush through highway tunnels and beneath tractor trailers and dash down Michigan Avenue, bursting windows with their sonic boom. None of it makes any narrative sense, of course. But for one fleeting moment, Driven understands that ignorance can be bliss.

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