Earlier in the year, I reviewed a film called Vice, an experience that must have been fulfilling, because I can’t remember much about it; but what I can remember mostly revolves around its leading man, Christian Bale, who I described in that review as being a ‘chameleon’ meaning an actor who changes themselves drastically to fit a role, something he proves once again here.
In Vice, he was a sharp-suited, yet personality free, Vice President. Here he’s a fiery tempered, unkempt race driver from Birmingham (that’s England’s Birmingham, not Alabama) talk about range!
A lot of hype has been afforded to this film – as well as some early Oscar hype – mainly due to its superstar leading men, the aforementioned Bale and the evergreen Matt Damon, and its Director, James Mangold, a director who is picking up a fair amount of prestige on the back of Logan, but has previously been responsible for the fantastic Walk The Line.
So, we begin the season of release madness, with a hot start out of the pits…
After being ferociously rejected in a takeover bid of Ferrari, a furious Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) orders Ford enter motor racing; recruiting Former Le Mans winner, turned car designer, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) who turns to his most trusted driver, the unpredictable Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who quickly ruffles feathers at Ford.
James Mangold has a great eye for an involving story, I’ll give him that. Although, on the surface, a feud between two motor companies might not sound like a solid gold story idea, but as with many things, the intrigue is in the human element of the story.
Motor racing really has to be one of those sports you really have to be into to fully understand. Unfortunately, it’s not something I’m into all that much; I drive a car, and I know what I need to keep an eye on to make sure it doesn’t blow up, but beyond that, I don’t know the difference between an inlet valve and drive shaft.
Which means that there is a thin line for this film to toe to make itself accessible to the layman, but paying its respects to its source material, a line I’d say it goes quite well, it tells you, and shows you in easy to understand terms what could go wrong, and indeed, what does wrong.
It does an admirable job in showing the dangers of the job too, it’s not a film with an overwhelming amount of needless explosions, but it knows when one can be inserted for maximum narrative drama. Just one explosion in this film means more than a million ones in the latest Fast & Furious or whatever, because it’s used to show the stakes, instead of visual flair.
That being said, there’s no lack of visual flair on display, I really like the colour palate Mangold uses for most of his films, and he tends to favour a dusty aesthetic, which works well when combined with some of the test tracks; speaking of tracks, that brings me nicely onto another highlight of the film: the driving scenes.
I wouldn’t say it was too heavy on the in-car driving or racing scenes, in many ways it’s just building up to the climactic race at the end, but when it does, the use of camera techniques helps us feel the speed and the intensity that goes with piloting these powerful, monstrous cars, and the reaction times needed to properly control it. This is mostly done with tight shots inside the cockpit, as well as showing us details of the car from the drivers perspective, it all goes together to create an incredibly immersive atmosphere, you forget you are watching a film at all, and are just transfixed on the ebbs and flows of the race.
Ironically for a film so focused on speed, I feel the pacing could have been better. It does feel over-long, which is a trend I’m noticing more and more in films, and there are many scenes I feel would have been better trimmed down or cut entirely.
That said however, I found the film incredibly engrossing from start to finish, even with its occasional flabbiness. The main reason for this is the character struggles at the films heart.
There’s a real conflict of conscious towards the end, the viewers expectations are manipulated masterfully, by putting Carroll and Ken so at odds with their superiors, there’s a constant clash of egos that is built to a quite excellent crescendo of mixed feelings that will play on the audiences’ perceptions in the best possible way. (This was a very hard paragraph to write without spoilers, let me tell you.)
Damon and Bale are at their excellent best in this film too. I see another Oscar nomination in Christian Bale’s future, that’s for sure. There seems to be no end to the man’s adaptability, as for Damon, he has some nice moments of characterisation, as well as a real poignant sincerity to his performance.
In conclusion, this is a well-crafted, intelligently-executed and finely-acted piece of cinema. Another great effort to add to James Mangold’s ever-increasing pile, and overall, it’s just an enjoyable film, with a little bit of something for everyone. Some character, some suspense, some action, and some emotion. We’re off to a flying start to the festive release boom.