- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

LONG BEACH, Calif. — The first drafts of "Driven," the new race-car film written by its star, Sylvester Stallone, had the erstwhile Rocky Balboa winning the race and saving the life of a fallen comrade.
Then the actor-writer reconsidered.
The more Mr. Stallone massaged the material, the more vulnerable, and real, his character became — and the more unlike the many action heroes he has played in the past.
A kinder, gentler, Mr. Stallone? Or an aging action star smart enough to know Hollywoods demographic priorities?
"Sometimes you bring too much baggage , and you cant check it on the plane anymore," Mr. Stallone says during a publicity tour on behalf of his film. "We just took a lot less of what I had done before. At one time, won the race."
Looking buff and rested in a pale-blue polo shirt, Mr. Stallone says he has been researching a racing film for years. The sport, as he puts it, is a sublime microcosm of our lives.
"We relate to racing more than any other thing in the world," says the actor, hoping his latest vehicle returns some luster to his fading star. "Everythings a race; from the moment were born, were racing to school, were racing to fall in love."
"Driven" follows the jittery rise of prodigy Jimmy Bly, played by Kip Pardue of "Remember the Titans." The neophyte driver has the skills, but his head needs some tinkering. Enter Mr. Stallones Joe Tanto, a veteran driver with a clouded past, brought in to corral Blys exuberance and steer his abilities toward the checkered flag.
Although the film trafficks in cliches, Mr. Stallones interpretation of it turns intellectual corners as nimbly as his character navigates a hairpin curve.
"Youwrite about what you know, and Ive always identified with those characters who have unrealized abilities," he says of the screenwriting process, weighing his words like a butcher making every slice count. "My whole redemptive overview permeates everything I do."
The man known for his slurry speech and bulging biceps drops references to Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe in conversation, almost in an unwitting defense of his carefully calibrated screen persona.
Writing, for Mr. Stallone, offers a brand of adrenaline that acting cant tap.
"Theres kind of a thrill at seeing something that came off the page being enacted in front of your very eyes," he says.
As a writer, he indulges in the joys of creating a miniworld of characters for audiences to meet. "'Rocky was basically an ensemble movie," he says of his star-making film, which earned him Oscar nominations for best original screenplay and best actor.
"If you took these five characters and split them into five different films, would you go and see a movie called 'Mickey, just about Burgess Meredith?" he asks. "Id watch that."
Interpreting Mr. Stallones carefully researched script was director Renny Harlin, a fellow racing fan who worked with the actor on 1993s "Cliffhanger."
Before Mr. Harlin met Mr. Stallone, he imagined the star to be not unlike his screen identities — a tough, macho guy who might not be that bright.
The real Mr. Stallone proved the flip side of that estimation, says Mr. Harlin, who has shed his own Nordic-like visage for a clean-cut style, his once-flowing blond locks restrained.
"When you get to the iconic level, there are very few people who will tell you the truth and who will criticize you and tell you what they think," he says. "I feel I have a relationship with him Im able to tell him, 'Hey, dont do it like that. Be yourself."
Mr. Harlin was working on another racing project when he learned Mr. Stallone had a screenplay of his own about the sport.
"We said well be lucky if Hollywood makes one race-car movie ," he says of their decision to join forces. That doesnt mean he understands such logic.
"Theyll make a football or baseball movie every year," Mr. Harlin says. " think a car-racing movie is just about cars going around in circles, and who wants to watch that?"
As a fan, he knows better. As a director, he had to prove his point.
"My goal was to put the audience in the drivers seat. and make it different from what you see on TV," he says. The film does just that. "With technology you can now see and feel what the driver feels," he says of the computer-generated thrills and "Matrix"-style effects.
It helped that he had the full cooperation of Championship Auto Racing Team, or CART, a branch of the racing industry that gave his crew generous access to its races around the world. Mr. Harlin would set up shots before the races began, then shoot between breaks to capture an authenticity otherwise unattainable.
The drivers deserve no less, is his mantra.
"Its physically and mentally really, really tough. You have to make split-second decisions," Mr. Harlin says of the sport.
As a racing devotee, he wanted his film to tell the story as accurately as Hollywood would permit.
"So many of my friends are in racing that I go to all these tracks. I wanted to get certain facts straight," he says. "At the same time, I had to try to maximize the entertainment value.
"These are athletes, and theyre fierce competitors, but there are no good guys and bad guys," he says. "We wanted to make it real."
The scripts secret weapon is pseudovillain Beau Brandenburg, played by German actor Til Schweiger. What begins as a hiss-inducing turn grows into a complex role for the little-known actor.
That philosophy trickled down to Mr. Stallones Tanto.
"With Stallones character, our goal from the beginning was not to make him the hero of the piece and the best driver in the world. We make him a guy who believes that by coming back and winning he will salvage his life and fix the mistakes of the past. Then he realizes its not all about that."
Mr. Stallones real-life past includes an array of hits ("First Blood," 1982) — and clanking duds ("Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot," 1992).
He promises he can take the heat.
"Careerwise, you are the sum total of your choices, and you must be accountable and responsible for your choices," he says. "The most hideous affectation one can have is to blame others.
"I hold myself accountable for some good things and some bad things," he says, the former including 1981s "Nighthawks" and 1997s "Cop Land."
"Now, this is much more proactive," he says of writing his own script. "There is no other one to blame."
He would not mind if his mentoring role in the film bled over into real life.
"I was intimidated at first when Id meet John Wayne," he says of his early acting days. Now Mr. Stallone can do something about a young actor nervous at the prospect of swapping lines with Rocky and Rambo.
"Its my responsibility to offer the olive branch," he says of his rapport with young actors. "Once you do that, they become incredibly supportive. I wish someone had done that for me."

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