THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Racing is one of those sports that you either get or you don't. Those who love it are fanatical about it. (I live along a major highway that leads to the Watkins Glen Speedway. On the night that the NASCAR trailers go by, people line up for miles just to watch -- the trailers, mind you, not the cars.) Those who don't like it are generally baffled by the sheer devotion fans have. The new movie Driven is not likely to convert any non-fans to the sport, nor is it likely to satisfy devotees. Director Renny Harlin has said that while racing is exciting, the movies made about it are not. This one does nothing to challenge that theory.

Sylvester Stallone gives racing tips to Kip Pardue in Driven
Sylvester Stallone not only stars, but he wrote the screenplay as well. The premise is a typical Stallone-style cliche. A rivalry exists between two drivers: the egomaniacal hotshot Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger) and the talented-but-unfocused Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue). After the young driver's slip in the rankings, Bly's coach (Burt Reynolds) knows he has to call in Joe Tanto (Stallone) for help. Tanto is one of those guys who could have had it all, blew it in a near-fatal accident, and quit racing to live on his farm and listen to country music all day. That's right - Driven is one of those cloying "redemption" movies in which Tanto fights down his demons by helping Bly hone his skills and get into the winner's circle.

As if that weren't hackneyed enough, there are multiple subplots all competing for space. There's one about Tanto's bitchy ex-wife (Gina Gershon) who is now married to his rival. There's a romantic competition between Brandenburg and Bly for the heart of Sophia (Estella Warren), a racing groupie who seems to like them both. There's a burgeoning romance between Tanto and a journalist (Stacy Edwards) that is really unconvincing. There's a battle of wills between Bly and his demanding manager brother (Robert Sean Leonard). And did I mention that the Burt Reynolds character is in a wheelchair? All these subplots are crammed into a running time of just under two hours. Subsequently, none of them is ever developed to any plausible level. It's like watching "As the World Turns" set on a race track.

Aside from having too many subplots - and using every sports cliche in the book - Driven is marred by some truly bad acting. Reynolds' career obviously gained nothing from his Oscar-nominated turn in Boogie Nights, because here he is overacting in full Stoker Ace mode. Even worse is Kip Pardue, a bland-as-toast actor who projects absolutely no charisma or energy whatsoever. Jimmy Bly might as well be played by a mannequin. Then there's Stallone who, like Reynolds, shucks any goodwill he earned from his acclaimed CopLand performance by recycling his past roles. He does that whole "loner looking to redeem himself" thing that he seems to do in every movie.

What makes Driven even remotely watchable is the energy that director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea) brings to the film. Now keep in mind that I'm not saying this movie is well directed; I'm saying it's energetically directed. There's a big difference. Harlin shoots the picture like a music video on speed. Like the sport itself, the race scenes in Driven move at 200 MPH. Although there are some bad special effects simulating raindrops on a windshield and tires flying off into the stands, the races are done with style. There are enough of them here to give the movie a mild boost (even for those of us who don't care for the sport). It cranks up your energy every time one of the characters hits the gas pedal. I also liked the spectacular crashes. And let's face it - that's really what fans want to see in racing, right? For all its other problems, Driven doubtlessly gives good crash.

When the cars were moving, I was moderately entertained. The rest of the time, my mind tended to wander and I begin noticing things like the fact that only five minutes had passed since I last checked my watch. Or how attractive former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Estella Warren is. The film's conclusion is a montage of characters smiling at the camera to let us know everything's okay; it has all the depth of a Mentos commercial. By that point, I was ready to hop in my own car and do 200 MPH out of the parking lot.

( out of four)

Driven is rated PG-13 for language and some intense crash sequences. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.
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