By Chaz Lipp
In some ways the quintessential Sylvester Stallone movie, Driven opened in 2001 with a relatively robust number one box office placing but quickly, quietly eased out of site. Stallone has racked up more misses than hits, both from a critical and commercial perspective, during his 40-plus year film career. Mercilessly mocked by fans of what was then known as CART racing for an unrealistic portrayal of the sport, the movie essentially ground Stallone’s leading man status to a halt. It would be five years before he starred in another film. Perhaps skittish following a string of diminishing grosses, culminating in the disastrous remake of Get Carter in 2000, Warner Bros. tried to bury Stallone’s presence in a marketing campaign that emphasized the younger, fresher faces amongst the cast.
Why the “quintessential” Stallone picture? He penned the script himself (working from a story credited to Jan Skrentny and Neal Tabachnick), but his reach far exceeds his grasp – or so it would seem based on the final cut. Reteaming with director Renny Harlin probably seemed like a great idea at the time. Their 1993 collaboration Cliffhanger was an international smash that recharged Stallone’s bankability at a time when the actor really needed it. But Driven’s extensive deleted scenes (first seen on the original DVD release, thankfully ported over to this Blu-ray edition) make it clear that Stallone had a very different, less action-oriented movie in mind. In fact, Stallone’s rather doleful introduction to the excised footage stands a de facto admission that the final product was far from what he initially envisioned.
While the deleted and extended scenes fill in the blanks, we can only assess Driven based on the finished film. Compared to many of the rather impersonal thrillers in which he starred during the mid-‘90s (The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins, Daylight), Driven is a considerable step up. Stallone stars as Joe Tanto, a retired race car champion whose previously wild lifestyle ruined his career and reputation. When young hotshot Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue) begins faltering in the harsh glare of champion Beau Brandenburg’s (Til Schweiger) stardom, team owner Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds) coaxes Tanto back into action. But Carl doesn’t want to see Joe racing toward the finish line – he only wants the veteran to block Brandenburg and anyone else who poses a threat to Bly.
Though many of the soap opera-esque threads aren’t fully fleshed out (again, see the deleted scenes for more fully realized relationships), we’re introduced to a gallery of moderately interesting, interrelated characters. Jimmy is relentlessly micromanaged by his domineering older brother Demille (Robert Sean Leonard). Beau’s career dedication creates friction with fiancé Sophia (Estella Warren). Joe’s ex-wife Cathy (Gina Gershon) is now married to the driver he’s called in to replace on the team, Memo (Cristián de la Fuente). A relationship begins to blossom between Joe and a journalist covering the CART championship, Luc (Stacy Edwards). The pro-action/anti-drama editing was harshest to Edwards, who saw most of her key moments with Stallone left on the floor (thankfully we can see what Sly had in mind in the deleted scenes).
However unrealistic much of the racing footage may be (most notably a chase scene through the city streets of Chicago), it remains reasonably exciting to watch. No expense was spared to create spectacular CG car crashes and 13 years later these effects hold up surprisingly well. However, when all is said and done, less racing footage and more character development would’ve resulted in a superior film. Stallone provides optional commentary for the 50 minutes worth of deleted and extended scenes, which paints a clear picture of what kind of movie Driven could’ve been. As released, the film is undeniably choppy in places, but ultimately entertaining. It’s a kick seeing two screen legends like Burt Reynolds and Sly Stallone verbally sparring; their interactions prove to be the film’s highlights.
Rather than carelessly dump this box office flop on Blu-ray, Warner offers a tremendously satisfying high definition experience. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography is presented as crisply and cleanly as possible, with his extremely colorful palette bursting off the screen. BT’s score and the complex racing-related sound effects highlight an outstanding DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack. This may be a budget-priced catalog title, but Warner has treated it like a top-shelf property. Stallone fans will be happy to add this one to their collection.
I’ve emphasized the deleted scenes and accompanying commentary more than enough, but they aren’t the only worthwhile supplemental feature. Also ported over from the previous DVD are Renny Harlin’s technical-oriented commentary track (which clearly illustrates the contrast between he and Stallone’s vision) and two short but well-produced featurettes. The 15-minute “Making of Driven” conveys the ambition invested by co-producers Harlin and Stallone. For Stallone diehards, it’s ultimately bittersweet to see the star so pumped for a movie that ultimately came close to wrecking his career. “Conquering Speed Through Live Action and Visual Effects” is a ten-minute piece focused on the film’s aforementioned excellent CG effects.
Unfairly panned over the years as being dramatically inert when there are, in fact, enough complicated relationships presented to fill out two movies, Driven is certainly worth the time for fans of Sylvester Stallone. In the overall arc of the star’s career, this is among the more underrated films in his canon. For general audiences, the expansive deleted scenes presented on the Blu-ray make Driven a true case study for the ways in which poor editorial decisions can negatively alter a movie.
Images: Warner Bros.