Nobody will go to see "Driven" expecting the snappy, densely packed dialogue of, say, "All About Eve," and that's just as well. On the other hand, if you're looking for trippy computer-animated car crashes in which detached racing wheels fly at you in exaggerated "The Matrix"-style slo-mo, along with manly displays of affection between manly men who feel each other's pain, the most ridiculous rescue sequence ever filmed and gratuitous scenes of synchronized swimming, you've come to the right place.
But, hey, there really are similarities between Sylvester Stallone's screenplay for "Driven" (you read that right) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's screenplay for "All About Eve." Well, there's one, anyway. When Gina Gershon, the drunken, slutty ex-wife of race driver Joe Tanto (Stallone), meets Joe's mousy new girlfriend, she growls: "Fasten your seat belt. It's going to be a bumpy ride." I guess it's meant to be funny that this line shows up in a movie about cars, and even as a mascara-damaged trashbag in a denim catsuit, Gershon is the best actor within miles of this movie and just about pulls it off. But people who make stuff like "Driven," which is basically a bad prequel to what might be a pretty good video game, really shouldn't remind us that the world contains real movies, ones we won't regret having sat through all the way to the end.
Let's be clear about this: Car racing, car chases and car crashes are fine things, as any true American will agree. "Driven" offers all of the above in large doses, and I'm not complaining. If the racing scenes are all but interchangeable (you can tell what continent they're on by the costumes of the trackside babes) there are a couple of horrendous, breathtaking crash scenes and an exciting chase through the streets of Chicago, when veteran driver Joe must pursue his protégé, Jimmy Blye (Kip Pardue). But motor-vehicle action is all this movie's got, unless you're counting Gershon in her denim catsuit, Chilean superstud Cristián de la Fuente in his underwear and maybe, to take the cheesecake down another notch, the synchronized-swimming scene involving model Estella Warren.
Throughout the "Rocky" and "Rambo" films, there were those who defended Stallone and insisted he was neither dumb nor a bad actor. All I can say about that after seeing "Driven," one of the weirdest movies to be released in this or any other year, is that I still think those people are wrong but I can't be quite sure. This is a boys' adventure story, flashy, empty and incoherent, that like most boys' adventure stories seems unaware of how profoundly homoerotic it is. Stallone's Joe is a washed-up former champ of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) open-wheel circuit who's called back to racing by a hard-ass team owner named Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds, and even he can't make the role any fun). "How's the fear?" asks Carl. "The fear is gone," says Joe.
With that question covered, Joe is assigned to nurture Jimmy, the coltish rookie who's locked in a battle for the championship with a stern-looking German driver named Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger). Jimmy and Beau spar briefly over a woman (Warren) and Joe haphazardly hooks up with a reporter (Stacy Edwards), but downy-cheeked, golden-tressed Jimmy (Pardue played the star quarterback in "Remember the Titans") is the real love object of "Driven," and prettier than any of the female characters to boot. In a heavily symbolic early scene, Jimmy is stormed and all but devoured by a legion of fans, and at the end he stands aglow with victory between Joe and Beau while they spray white foam from huge champagne bottles all over him.
In between his impressive if repetitious action sequences, director Renny Harlin ("Die Hard 2," "Deep Blue Sea") sustains a mode of overarching, tear-jerking melodrama, built on loving close-ups of Pardue's perfect skin, Schweiger's majestic cleft chin and Stallone's finely shaped lips and lashes. Blend this with the sophomoric clichés of Stallone's script and the overall effect is somewhere between "Speed Racer" and gay porn. With many other filmmakers I might suspect some prankish intention behind this strange, violent and sexually ambiguous spectacle. In this case, I'm guessing that Harlin and Stallone have made a perverted love story about boys, cars and death entirely by accident.