For the casual moviegoer, Driven is an average race-car movie with a few cool scenes and blatant special effects. I actually got much more out of Driven than that, but as they say, your mileage may vary.
Formula (One) Plot
PG-13 for language, crashes
The plot is like that of any other sports movie. In fact, you could “mad-lib” it pretty well. A young kid named [Jimmy Bly] wants to be the world’s best [race-car driver]. He’s haunted by [self-doubt], which keeps him from besting his nemesis [Beau Brandenburg], the arrogant, haughty [race-car driver] characterized by [his German heritage]. Our hero is helped along by his wise friend [Joe Tanto] who teaches him about life using [race-car driving] metaphors such as “[Don’t drive for him, drive for yourself.].”
But then you probably won’t be going to a loud car-race movie for the plot, will you? You’ll be more likely to go for the tension, the stunts, and the special effects.
Tension, Stunts, Special Effects
Often computer-generated effects are a distraction. The blurred edges of a faked scene bug me to no end. However, if the effects really serve the story, I’m much more willing to suspend my disbelief.
In Driven, some of the computer-generated effects are quite phony-looking, but the tension is so good that I didn’t let it bother me. I was so engrossed in the races that I hardly noticed the CG. And although many scenes are clearly faked, there does seem to be lots of footage of real cars driving very fast.
Three other car-race movies come to mind and none of them had the energy of Driven. Days of Thunder was a disappointing non-Top Gun. Grand Prix had one or two exciting moments, but spent too much time off the track. Le Mans had the advantage of Steve McQueen and some good racing footage, but it wasn’t as relentless as Driven.
Driven lacks the star power of those other movies. Most of the characters, including some leads, are played by relatively unknown newcomers. Kip Pardue (Remember the Titans) plays Bly, and Til Schweiger (SLC Punk), sounding like Lon Chaney, plays the nemesis Beau. But the budget was better spent on the driving footage and the CPU time. Aside from Burt Reynolds in a small part, Sylvester Stallone is the one name that will draw audiences.
They’ll be coming for the right person, but for the wrong reasons.
Stallone wrote the screenplay, which is one of Driven’s best points. He also starred and produced, but his biggest contribution is a story that, granted, is itself a pretty big cliche.
However, within the story, scenes and characters rise above the formula. Opportunities for cliches present themselves over and over, and repeatedly, the characters don’t take the bait. A half-dozen times I smelled a trite movie convention, and I was consistently surprised by Sly’s thoughtful writing.
For example, Jimmy’s nemesis Beau Brandenburg is a cool, confident driver. He’s unemotional to the point of driving away his girlfriend and arrogant to the point of earning the nickname “cold fish.” But early in the film, he reveals to Joe that he’s hurt that his girlfriend left, and because he has bad people skills he doesn’t know how to apologize. Formula movie villains never get that kind of sympathy. But screenwriter Sly gives Beau a heart and a sympathetic flaw.
Another example follows the first one. Beau’s girlfriend Sophia (Estella Warren) has rebounded into the arms of our hero, Jimmy Bly. Bly and Sophia get along very well and they make a cute couple. She even helps him race better. But halfway through the film, Beau approaches her; he wants her to come back. In a formula movie, it would be instantly clear whose side to take, but because Stallone gave our nemesis a heart, it’s not entirely clear who “should” get the girl.
I thought of three or four more examples of cliche-avoidance that I won’t mention specifically. Suffice it to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the details, even if the story itself was formulaic.
Stallone the Artist?
Some people have a preconceived notion of Sylvester Stallone (including me, once). He’s often associated with monosyllabic grunts and sweaty physicality. But there’s more to this man than Rocky and Rambo.
I remember my surprise when I learned he didn’t just sweat in Rocky, he also wrote it and won an Oscar for it. A couple years ago, he put on weight to play the sad and lonely Freddy in Cop Land. He even made fun of his own tough guy image in the action/comedy Demolition Man (he endured a civics lesson about President Schwarzenegger and later knitted his girlfriend a pretty red sweater.)
Stallone realizes he’s been cast as America’s Neanderthal, and is willing to fight that stereotype. It makes me admire him, not because he actually proved himself sensitive or smart, but because he values sensitivity and intelligence enough to go out of his way to portray himself that way. Seeing Driven’s surprising screenplay unfold reinforced my admiration for an action star who sees there’s more to life than action movies.
Aging Actor’s Syndrome
In some sense, Driven is really about Stallone himself. He’s now cast himself not as the talented but headstrong hero, but rather as the wise spirit guide. It’s as though Joe Tanto is the older self of all his other characters. Stallone has taken stock, looked back, and is ready to impart his advice to the next generation.
Like Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again, which opens on an aging James Bond getting a medical checkup; like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, reflecting on youth misspent glorifying violence; even like Jackie Chan in his latest Hong Kong film called Gorgeous (which went straight to video), in which a young whippersnapper too-respectfully kicks his aging ass; Sylvester Stallone is allowing his characters to mature.
To the average moviegoer, I can’t recommend Driven very highly. The plot is nothing new, and the (young) people behind me were very disappointed with the imperfect CGI. Disappointment may or may not be the prevailing notion among the crowds, but as a recent admirer and well-wisher of Stallone’s I was glad to get more out of Driven.
As they say, your mileage may vary.