Here's a reality check: A quarter-century has passed since Sly Stallone scrapped to the top of Hollywood's heap in Rocky. Watching Driven, Stallone's speed-crazed tour through the world of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), you don't know whether to feel awe or pity about the fact that he's jumped behind the wheel of yet another underdog vehicle.
At least he's smart enough to realize that he's too old to play the main underdog. Stallone, who wrote the script, gracefully assigns himself the Burgess Meredith role: He's Joe Tanto, an aging former driving champ who, of course, Threw It All Away. He's dragged back to the circuit by a scheming magnate (an alarmingly taut-faced Burt Reynolds) to mentor Jimmy Bly, an up-and-comer who's stumbled after a promising string of wins.
Kip Pardue (the QB from Remember the Titans) gamely attempts to fill the racing suit originally laid out for Leonardo DiCaprio. With his floppy locks and geek-boy mannerisms, Pardue drives against type, but he fails to qualify as a credible hot-rod heartthrob. The testosterone-drenched dialogue fails to qualify as credible, period. Stallone's scripts have usually been riddled with groan-inducing clunkers, and the years seem only to have buffed the tin on Sly's ear. After catching Bly in a preposterous racecar chase through the pedestrian-infested streets of Chicago, Tanto uncorks this insightful gem: "Faith, well, that's like, uh, believing in something. It's like having a good disease." Right on, Rocky.
Elsewhere on the circuit, we've got the icy European driving champ (Til Schweiger), his pouty, neglected wife (Estella Warren), Bly's media-shark brother (Robert Sean Leonard) and Gina Gershon in full satiric mode, sneering and snapping as Tanto's gargoyle-ish ex-wife. In other words, a cloying oil slick of stock characters and clichÃs ' including my personal favorite, the journalist (Stacy Edwards) who falls for her source with nary a whiff of stigma.
Stallone's script asks us to care about all of them without developing any of them. Which means we're left with race sequences. Miles and miles of race sequences.
Director Renny Harlin, a guy who never met an action sequence he couldn't amp until it bleeds, is at the wheel, while his foot slams the accelerator six feet through the tarmac. He stages the races as a hypercharged videogame, with a steroid-quality soundtrack throbbing while the camera cuts, zooms and jitters from the crowd to the track and back, zipping through the curves and straightaways in an endless highlight reel of squealing brakes and smoking rubber.
That's entertainment ' at least in the age of MTV and "SportsCenter." Like their forebears (the ones who held season tickets to the Colosseum), modern sports fans live for the visceral thrill. For all its competitive drama, boxing is essentially about the knockout, hockey is about the fighting, and auto racing is about the crash. Harlin provides plenty of spectacular, fatality-free smash-'em ups, most of which benefit a little too obviously from computer-generated effects. (One in particular, in which a fiery crash blazes in a torrential downpour, also defies the laws of logic and nature.)
The vroom-a-zoom-zoom-kaboom! is effective (driving home, I resisted the urge to floor my Ford Taurus at least twice), but damned if that CART-circuit season isn't interminable. Driven speeds past what should have been the climactic race toward a much more predictable checkered flag.