Cooper Straight

If you're reading this, the chances are that, like me, you've got a soft spot for motor racing movies. In which case you won't need reminding that Grand Prix, Winning and Le Mans, produced in a remarkable four-year window in 1966-70, represent the holy triumvirate of the genre.

Cooper Straight

All capture the flavour of the sport in superb style, and are also wonderful historical documents. Since then we've had Days of Thunder, and oddities like Bobby Deerfield, but there was still room for someone to make a modern film that was a match for what had gone before.

It was thus with some interest that I looked forward to Sylvester Stallone's racing movie, first announced at Monza back in 1998. I finally caught up with what we now know as Driven in Belgium this week, three months after it was released in the States.

In Britain you may have to wait a little longer. As far as I can tell no date has yet been set for a UK release, and indeed, some reports suggest that it might not even have one, and will thus fall into the unfortunate 'straight to video' category. In other words, you can be sure it is not a potential Best Picture nominee...

Originally of course it was to be set in the world of F1. Bernie Ecclestone seemed to be willing to bend over backwards to accommodate Sly, and the great man and his entourage turned up at several races for a look around. But somewhere along the line he and Bernie 'failed to come to terms', and one presumes that money was the issue. In theory a movie based on Grand Prix racing could have been a huge boost for our sport and everyone involved (not least the sponsors), especially with a US GP on the horizon, but the opportunity was lost. And CART eagerly stepped in...

It was logical that Hollywood should base a movie around Champcars, since the series was closer to home literally and metaphorically, and access was bound to be much easier than at F1 events. CART did everything it could to accommodate the film makers, just as NASCAR did a decade ago when Days of Thunder was in production.

At the time the NASCAR folk were a little disappointed by the way Days of Thunder turned out, because a little too much Hollywood spin had been put on the subject. Perhaps someone from CART should have taken note of the downside of jumping into bed with film makers. Driven is a very poor film, on every level. Indeed it makes DofT look like Citizen Kane...

I'd read a few reviews, but I was prepared to at least enjoy the action sequences. Ironically they turned out to be the weakest thing in it. It got to the point where I laughed out loud, but not alas in places where humour was intended to be found.

Cars do not merely spin and hit tyre walls in the land of Driven. They flip, they roll, they take off like V2 rockets. They shed bodywork so comprehensively that they reveal noseboxes made not of sturdy carbonfibre, but steel tubing, uncannily like low budget show cars. The much-vaunted digital sequences look like they are taken straight from an early nineties video game, so obvious are they. But even the virtual cars don't look as artificial as wheelchair-bound team boss Burt Reynolds, whose extensive plastic surgery makes him resemble The Stepford Grandad. A race team owner wearing a wig? It wouldn't happen in F1. But then again...

There's so much more. Team mates talking to each other on the radio during races? Telemetry that flashes 'too fast' warning alerts prior to crashes? The best bit was when our jilted hero jumps into a car on display at a PR jolly, fires it up, and tears off onto the streets of Chicago. Stallone gets into another car and a chase ensues, and despite causing total chaos, the pair escape police censure. These days it takes half a dozen guys and a bunch of laptops and other gizmos to start a racing car from cold, but let's overlook that...

Was this an elaborate piss take, along the lines of Airplane or The Naked Gun? I half expected to see a row of dancing Hitlers traipse across the screen, or Gene Wilder and Frankenstein's monster singing the national anthem before a race start. Or better still, a heavy metal rendition by Spinal Tap...

It gets better, especially when Memo Moreno (no relation to Roberto Gidley, one assumes) flips upside down into a lake. Shades of Pete Aron at Monaco perhaps, but at least that was based on a couple of real incidents. Here Memo's concerned team mate does a U-turn, and heads the wrong way down the track so that he can climb out and help.

The trees are on fire, fuel is pumping into the water, but our hero wades in and attempts to turn the wreck over. And then his bitter rival stops too - having been told on the radio (by his girlfriend...) that he ought to go and do something to help. Inevitably these two bold fellows pull their injured colleague to safety, with no sign of any official assistance, just before the thing blows up.

In the grand finale, at glamorous Detroit, Stallone's front suspension completely folds over, and yet he still holds onto the lead without too much trouble. And we're already struggling to believe that the 54-year-old actor makes for a realistic racing driver...

Most of the filming was done at genuine CART venues, but for some reason this one takes place on a circuit that looks uncannily like a road car test track. And it's supposed to be the 'German Grand Prix', if the logos on the rescue trucks are to be believed.

There's the funny thing. Having lost Bernie's co-operation Stallone ploughed on with his World Championship storyline, which is why races in Canada, Japan and Germany get major coverage. And the names CART and Champcar are nowhere to be seen...

I suppose at the end of the day Driven is harmless, especially if you're a 10-year-old and you've been weaned on Playstation. And the main character, a bespectacled young driver who is freaked out by PR commitments and spends most of his spare time checking computer data, is a fair attempt at portraying the modern racing driver. There's no doubt that Jacques Villeneuve provided a degree of inspiration, and perhaps that's why Stallone wears a Winfield Williams hat in one scene...

But why on earth couldn't they at least try to anchor the story in reality? Attention to period detail didn't hurt the likes of Titanic and Gladiator. Perhaps Stallone thought there weren't enough knowledgeable race fans to justify getting the basics right. No one would have the nerve to tackle a major sport like baseball or American football with such a casual attitude to those who care. Or even, dare I say it, boxing.

What a wasted opportunity. It's almost certainly the last motor racing movie we'll ever see, and after this, nobody will be willing to either finance one or co-operate - and Bernie can be thankful that he narrowly avoided making a laughing stock of our sport. It says a lot too for the talent and commitment of the likes of Steve McQueen and John Frankenheimer. And they didn't have all those digital gizmos...

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