Cars are fragile. This seems to be Renny Harlin’s main idea in Driven, repeated in money shot after money shot of open-wheeled race cars flying through the air and smashing to pieces as if they were made of balsa wood. The people who drive the cars are, in some ways, just as fragile, as racing becomes a way for these drivers to displace their emotional lives into something they actually know how to do. While the film does show the cars crashing exceedingly well, the people part only functions to keep the film from coming off like a late night infomercial for an exploitative “Greatest Car Crashes” videotape—not available in stores!
Driven‘s first few minutes set up the situation: Jimmy Blye (Kip Pardue) is the hot new kid on the Formula-One racing circuit who quickly outstrips veteran Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger). But what goes up must come down and, before the opening credits are through, Jimmy has come down—hard. The reasons why are fairly predictable: fame, adoring fans, and the pain of becoming a product. Everyone around Jimmy is all for it: as his brother Demille (Robert Sean Leonard) says, “In five years, when you’re a brand name, you’ll thank me.” But Jimmy is falling apart and the film’s frantic editing captures it perfectly: we see anonymous reporters and half-dressed groupies grabbing at him, then take his point-of-view as literal flashes fill the frame, blinding us for a moment, before cutting quickly to Jimmy’s flinching face. This is the chaos of fame.
Enter Joe Tanto (Sylvester Stallone), a former race car driver who “has been at the top of the mountain and stumbled all the way down.” Stallone is playing a role remarkably similar to the one he played in Rocky V, the grizzled veteran who bestows his wisdom on the young kid (why oh why, Sly, if you’re going to rip off material from your own Rocky franchise, would you choose that lame fifth installment?). We know he’s a kick-ass race car driver: he can pick quarters off the racetrack with his tires while zipping along at 200 mph. But his wisdom is less clear: Brandenburg’s memory of their time together in Detroit, 1997 is not so good (“You almost killed me, Joe!”), and Tanto’s vindictive ex-wife Cathy (Gina Gershon)—now married to racer Memo Moreno (Cristian de la Fuente)—pops up at inconvenient moments, such as when Tanto’s putting the moves on sports reporter Lucretia Clan (Stacy Edwards). What we come away with is the feeling that Tanto was a great talent who couldn’t cope with the fame—hardly the ideal mentor for Jimmy Blye, who is already having difficulties with his new girlfriend, Sophia (Estella Warren), Brandenburg’s occasionally estranged wife. This relationship leads to one of Driven‘s more reprehensible elements: its treatment of women.
Given the hyper-masculinity of racing sports, it’s no surprise that the women of Driven are sexualized and objectified in the ugliest of ways, particularly in the establishing shots of each race: a pretty woman sucks on a very phallic churro, and numerous shots of buxom babes in booty shorts are intercut with shots of gleaming race cars. The obvious implication is that cars and women are things that men control, and the film further supports this in its characterization of the women who find themselves in relationships with these “driven” men. Brandenburg and Jimmy regularly exchange Sophia. Cathy is a bitch because of the way she treats Tanto, despite the fact Tanto left her, not the other way around. It seems that only Lucretia is let off from the rampant sexism, but then again, she’s constructed as “one of the guys”: she goes by the nickname “Luke” and she’s someone in whom Tanto can confide, the way he confides in the other racers. Then again, her primary function is to be his one-dimensional love interest.
On the other hand, the men in the film bond incessantly. They constantly refer to “the brotherhood of racers.” It’s this “brotherhood” that grounds Tanto’s relationship with Jimmy. After the two race through the streets of Chicago in hijacked prototype race cars, Tanto tells Jimmy, “You’ve got to get back to doing what you love because you love it.” Because of the brotherhood, racers are surprisingly uncompetitive off the race course (in whose interest Memo goes so far as to offer to divorce Tanto’s ex-wife if it’ll make him happier) and even on it (they are consistently willing to sacrifice their own success for one of their “brothers”).
Driven shows us that racing isn’t everything to these men: the establishing shots of the final race include race car drivers kissing pictures of their wives and children, expressing the loneliness of any job that keeps you out on the road for long periods of time. Unfortunately—in the hands of screenwriter Stallone and director Harlin—scenes of race car drivers expressing their “emotions ‘n stuff” come off as flat as much of the film’s dialogue. Speaking of racing, Tanto says, in all seriousness, “It’s like having a good disease. It’s contagious!” While cringe-worthy moments like this suggest wells of emotion, they never develop enough to be dramatically effective. They are really just quiet moments for the audience to catch their breath between the film’s masterfully executed set pieces: the races, during which Harlin takes obvious delight in crashing cars.
Watching gravity manhandle these flimsy cars as they collide and use each other as ramps is nine-tenths of Driven‘s fun. In one scene, a car is launched into the air and, as it flies in tranquil slow motion, the other cars zoom past so quickly that the only evidence of them is the warped trail of air they leave behind and the sonic boom of their engines roaring past. The flying car finally drops low enough to hit another car, launching it across the track like a baseball off a bat. Of course, this is all highly improbable, but it fits with the theme of improbability that runs through Renny Harlin’s oeuvre. If you could suspend your disbelief long enough to buy into The Long Kiss Good Night‘s indestructible assassin or Deep Blue Sea‘s genetically enhanced “smart” sharks, then you should have no trouble appreciating the sight of race cars flying through the air like space shuttles through space.
Unfortunately, Driven is just too uneven. Given the exciting car crashes, it should have been entertaining enough to hold anyone’s attention for a good two hours, but its banal story weighs it down, along with its tepid social commentary. There’s a tentative anti-product endorsements theme in Jimmy’s attempts to navigate between his money-minded brother Demille and his racing-minded “brother” Tanto, but this idea never develops, probably because the film itself succumbs to the very vice it purports to criticize: Nextel, Motorola and Target logos are everywhere. The most insistent point made by Driven is the most obvious: “Car crashes are cool.”