Tag: Jon Bernthal

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Conspiracies, lies and dirty politics surround a politician who definitely isn’t Blair in Polanski’s superb thriller

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), David Rintoul (Stranger), Eli Wallach (Old Man), James Belushi (John Maddox)

An American publishing company is in dire straits. They’ve paid a fortune for the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), once seen as a visionary liberal idol but now blamed for a deeply controversial war in Iraq (sound familiar?). Problem is his trusted aide Mike McCara – who is actually writing the book – has been found drowned on Martha’s Vineyard where Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and staff are staying. The book needs to be finished in a month – but it’s in an unpublishable mess. Who ya gonna call? A Ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) of celebrity memoirs to finish the job of course. But will the Ghost resist trying to investigate whatever McCara uncovered in Lang’s life that may have led to his suspicious death?

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris – who turned from a strong supporter of Blair, to terminally disenchanted – The Ghost Writer comes to the screen as a superbly controlled, perfectly placed piece of tight-wound tension from Roman Polanski, that mixes wonderful elements of Hitchcockian menace and Seventies conspiracy thriller, not to mention lashings of his own Chinatownbut here switched to the doom-laden drizzle of New York, rather than the sunkissed glory of California.

Set on a grim, grey and foreboding Martha’s Vineyard (although, for obvious legal reasons, actually filmed in Potsdam), Polanski lets every scene grow in unsettling tension. Very little explicit is every said, but danger from unknown, unseen forces is a constant presence. Accompanied by a Herrmann-esque score from Alexandre Desplat (also with a hint of a twist on Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown), this is film made with such calm, patient authority that its exudes engrossing tension. Polanski employs some beautiful touches, worthy of Hitchcock: from the Ghost, uncertain if he is being followed when boarding a car ferry, making a desperate run for freedom; to a wonderful tracking shot at a book launch that follows a note containing a vital reveal, passed from hand to hand through a crowd to the guilty speaker.

The Ghost Writer also has neat moments of dark comedy which also feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ability to mix dark chuckles with oppressive tension. The Ghost’s recruitment as a writer – and his hilariously frank suggestion that political memoirs are boring beyond belief – is a lovely lightly comic entrée that completely fails to prepare us for the conspiracy thriller that follows in all the right ways. Stuck in Lang’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost tries to secretly download a copy of the memoir he is only allowed to read under supervision: his attempt coincides, to his terror, with what turns out to be a test of the alarm system. In the background of a shot during a monologue from Lang, a worker struggles with wearied patience to clean the wind-filled grounds of leaves, constantly, dutifully, collecting them back up as they blow away.

These moments of lightness make the dark even blacker. We are constantly left guessing as to who knows what. Was McCara murdered? What mysteries lie in Lang’s university past that McCara considered so important? Lang and his wife oscillate from welcoming to coldly distant. Particularly so with Ruth Lang, a superb performance from Olivia Williams. Ruth has, quite possibly, been the power behind the Lang throne, but now seems less sure of where she stands. She’s tense, without making clear why and at times painfully blunt. Suffering no fools, brittle, sharply intelligent, coldly determined, her surprisingly vulnerability draws the Ghost in, despite him knowing its “a bad idea”.

But then The Ghost makes more than a few bad ones. Perhaps because he gets fed up with people thinking he’s stupid and is too keen to prove them wrong. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as a man who spends most of his time wearily ignoring digs at the fact he’s best known for ghosting the autobiography of a celebrity chef. The Ghost – as in Harris’ book he remains un-named, suitable for a man whose job is to pretend to be his client – seems to be a disconnected observer, but emerges as a dogged detective – even if he is painfully out of his depth and acting way beyond his expertise. He becomes increasingly panicked at the terrifying world of international politics and espionage, like a beginner swimmer dropped in the deep end, while unable to stop himself digging further, like picking at a scab.

The film picks at its own scab with the legacy of Blair. Brosnan’s confident, charismatic performance captures an impression of Blair while never trying to be an impersonation. He perfectly conveys the easy charm and casual but shallow warmth of the professional politician, but the slightest scratch of the surface reveals a man who feels hard-done-by and undervalued and sick of being judged for making the tough calls. Polanski allows him moments of sympathy: it’s hard not to see his point when he makes the case for what many would call intrusive security and the self-righteousness of his persecutor, former foreign secretary Ryecart (Robert Pugh, channelling Robin Cook) hardly warms the viewer (or the Ghost) to him.

The Ghost Writer manages to make its political parallels – especially about Iraq – pointed but not too heavy handed. (There is a lovely performance from David Rintoul as a calmly spoken former-army type who turns out to be a rabid anti-war protester). It imaginatively fictionalises a version of history, humanising characters who could otherwise be crude caricatures. The cast are wonderful and this is an intelligent, gripping, classic conspiracy thriller. Mastered by Polanski, who assembles the film with such control that it takes a cold grasp of your heart without ever seeming to overwork itself. As the credits roll, Polanski having left us with a poetically tragic image of pages blowing emptily in the wind on a London street, you’ll realise how the quiet doom so expertly built could only have led to one thing. The Ghost shoulda forgot about it: its Chinatown.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Greed is Good? Scorsese’s masterpiece is a heady deconstruction of the excess of white collar criminals

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jordon Belfort), Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff), Margot Robbie (Naomi Lapaglia), Kyle Chandler (FBI Agent Patrick Denham), Rob Reiner (Max Belfort), Jon Bernthal (Brad Brodnick), Matthew McConaughey (Mark Hanna), Jon Favreau (Manny Riskin), Jean Dujardin (Jean-Jacques Saurel), Joanna Lumley (Aunt Emma), Cristin Milioti (Teresa Patrillo), Christine Eberle (Leah Belfort), Kenneth Choi (Chester Ming), Brian Sacca (Robbie Feinberg), Henry Zebrowski (Alden Kupferberg)

All The Wolf of Wall Street is really missing is an early freeze frame of a coke-fuelled banker slamming the phone down on a closed deal and a wistful voiceover from Jordan Belfort: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be Wall Street trader”. If Goodfellas was Scorsese’s exploration of the attractions – and dangers – of a life in blue collar crime, then The Wolf of Wall Street is its white collar companion piece. The fact that so many viewers find the behaviour of Belfort morally outrageous in a way that no one ever objects about Henry Hill is, for me, an indication of how much we loath these masters-of-the-universe. For all their faults, we’d still rather see a violent criminal as one of us.

Based on Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) autobiography, The Wolf of Wall Street follows his time building a dodgy trading empire and a large fortune. Not that he can remember most of it, as he seems to be on a permanent intoxicated binge of drinks, hookers and every drug you can ever imagine (and some you can’t). The FBI catches up with him eventually, but Belfort learns precious little from his experiences. Other than, perhaps, that so long as you are rich and white in America, you can basically get away with anything.

That’s perhaps the key to Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese may not shy away from the delicious dark comedy of Belfort’s life of excess, but it doesn’t blind him to the shallow awfulness of the man or his unthinking, instinctive greed and self-obsession. You would need to be a pretty shallow person to look at Belfort’s greed, moral emptiness and self-destructive binges and want to ape him. If you think watching DiCaprio literally paralytic on quaaludes is the life you want, frankly there is something wrong with you.

What perhaps made some feel Wolf of Wall Street was oddly in love with Belfort is its electric pace. The film is a brilliant reminder of Scorsese’s faultless understanding of pace. Or one who matches unparalleled cinematic skill with the rambunctious energy of a first-timer allowed to play with his movie toys for the first time. Brilliantly assembled, this is a superb collection of cinematic techniques, from jump cuts to fluid transitions that power through a series of increasingly bacchanalian parties and isn’t afraid to admit that, in the moment, this stuff can be fun (rather like getting the best table in Goodfellas) but ultimately self-destructive. (After all, few know the dangers of drugs like Scorsese.)

At the centre of this whirlwind is a stunning performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. With his still youthful, charismatic handsomeness, DiCaprio only needed to tweak his screen persona to provoke the sort of perverted idolatry Belfort receives from his co-workers. But he goes above and beyond in his transformation in this role. He makes Belfort simultaneously oddly childlike and revoltingly corrupted, someone whom we enjoy spending time with while finding repulsive. He rips through Belfort’s trademark, drug-fuelled motivational speeches, monologues of insanely eye-popping intensity, explosions of off-the-chain wildness. At other times he’ll sulk and whine like a spoilt child. DiCaprio struts across the screen with an unpredictable physicality – his embodying of the physical effects of mind-altering drugs is hilarious and horrifying –in possibly his finest ever performance.

DiCaprio is the raw energy source that helps power the rest of the film. Scorsese matches him blow-by-blow with this dynamic expose of white-collar corruption. Using Belfort as a narrator – which serves to further expose his shallowness, greed and utter inability to learn any sustained messages from the depths he plummets to – the entire film is all about how the flip side of the American Dream tacitly promotes and encourages this sort of behaviour.

Belfort is the rash the system has come out as. In a highly effective early cameo, McConaughey plays Belfort’s first mentor, a coke-fuelled hedonist hooked on the buzz of closing deals, who pushes Belfort towards a career of success (including introducing a brilliant breathing exercise – improvised by McConaughey based on his own warm-up exercises – that becomes a mantra in the film). DiCaprio’s eyes have already lit up at watching a deal closing. Drugs and sex are just an attempt for Belfort to replicate the buzz of the real addiction: money.

Scorsese recognises that we don’t need to know the details of Belfort’s illegal dealings. (In his voiceover Belfort literally tells us it doesn’t matter, all that does is the shitload of cash they were bringing in.) We learn enough about the huge mark-ups (50% of the deal’s value) he can make from selling penny stocks (trades of small public companies) and “pump and dump” tactics to know it’s wrong. I will admit the film does little to show the victims – but then Belfort never cares either, proudly stating at one point he has no guilt fleecing his clients out of cash, because he knows how to spend it, better than they do.

It all pours into a hedonistic, alpha-male environment where the air is as littered with fucks (the film held a record for most use of the word) as the floors and desks of Belfort’s offices are during his hooker-filled end-of-week parties. Wolf of Wall Street is also an expose of toxic alpha-maledom. Bullying, abuse and screaming are ripe, women are basically commodities traded as easily as shares. The only exceptions are those allowed into the boys’ club as either surrogate-male fellow traders or trophies to adorn the arm. Margot Robbie (superb in a star-making role) plays Belfort’s glamourous wife, who knows she needs to use her physical assets to make her way in this world.

The film rips along through a party-deal-party structure. Belfort goes from wowing his fellow penny stock traders by making $2k in two minutes to wrapping the trading floor of his fake-old-school Wall Street firm around his finger in excess filled speeches. He also goes from a charming party animal to an incoherent, rambling, deeply unpleasant and dangerous drunk and drug addict. But crucially, he learns nothing . There is no life-and-soul shattering payback like Henry Hill undergoes. Fault, guilt and consequences roll off his rich, spoilt back. He ends the film still winning the adulation of would-be millionaires, his conscience (if it exists) untroubled by any impact his actions have had on others.

Perhaps Scorsese could have allowed more space to victims – and to Kyle Chandler’s dutiful and dedicated FBI agent who brings him down (our final shot of this character stresses his humble, low-paid status – echoing back to his confession to at times regretting leaving a trading career for a law one). But that’s to criticise the film for not being obvious enough. Of course parties are fun. But each party becomes wilder, more orgiastic and uncomfortable as the film goes on. But if we didn’t understand the fun, we couldn’t understand how people get hooked on this adrenalin fuelled life.

Wolf of Wall Street though is a warning to the curious – if you are smart enough to look. Belfort’s soulless, horrible life is not one to aspire to, and his moral emptiness not one to wish to have. It’s a funny film, but it’s also a dark one. DiCaprio is brilliant beyond belief, Jonah Hill funny and pathetic as his best friend, Margot Robbie becomes a star and Scorsese rips through the film with the energy, passion and dynamism of a much younger director. An outstanding tentpole film in his CV.

Widows (2018)

Widows (2018)

Sexism, racism and corruption get mixed in with crime drama in McQueen’s electric heist film

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Viola Davis (Veronica Rawlings), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Lukas Haas (David)

A getaway goes wrong and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his criminal gang all wind-up dead and their loot burned up. Their last job was cleaning out the election fund of gangster-turned-electoral-candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning believes he’s owed a debt by Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis). On the hock for millions, Veronica has no choice but to recruit the widows of Harry’s gang to help her pull off the next job Harry planned: cleaning out the campaign fund of Manning’s electoral rival Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).

Adapted from an 80s British TV mini-series, Widows has been run through Steve McQueen’s creative brain, emerging as a compelling, beautifully shot crime drama mixing social, racial and gender commentary with blistering action. It takes a traditionally masculine genre – the crime caper – and places at its heart a group of women motivated by desperation and survival rather than the lure of lucre.

What’s particularly interesting is that none of these women fit the bill of the sort of person you expect to arrange a daring heist. Viola Davis’ Veronica is a retired teachers’ union rep; Elizabeth Debicki an abuse victim, treated terribly by her husband and selfish mother; Michelle Rodriguez a shop owner desperately trying to give her kids a chance, despite her husband’s reckless gambling. Even the driver they hire, played by Cynthia Erivo, is a hairdresser and babysitter. These women are a world away from the ruthless criminals you’d expect to pull off this kind of operation.

It’s probably why they are routinely underestimated and patronised by men. Veronica is advised clear her debt by selling either everything she owns and disappear. As with the rest of the women, the world expects her to put up and shut up. These are women defined by their husbands and the expectation that their needs are subordinate to others’. Debicki’s Alice is all-but pushed into escort work by her demanding mother, while Rodriguez’s Linda is blamed by her mother-in-law for her husband’s death. But these women have a steely survival instinct that makes them determined and (eventually) ruthless enough to take this job on.

Davis is superb as a determined and morally righteous woman, whose principles are more flexible than she thinks. She efficiently (and increasingly sternly) applies her organisational skills to planning the heist, pushing her crew to adapt her own professionalism. Davis wonderfully underplays Veronica’s grief, not only at the loss of her husband but also the recent death of her son (shot by police officers while reaching to answer his phone behind the wheel of an expensive car – in front of a wall of Obama “Hope” posters, a truly striking visual image).

Her co-stars are equally impressive. Debicki has mastered the mix of vulnerability and strength behind characters like this (how many times has she played suffering, glamourous gangster molls?). Her Alice gains the self-belief to push back against those exploiting her. Rodriguez beautifully balances grief at the loss of her husband with fury at the financial hole he has left her in. Erivo gets the smallest role, but makes Bella dry, loyal and sharp. All four of them use the way men underestimate them – seeing them as widows, wives, weak or sex objects – to plan out their heist.

The reversal of gender expectations crosses over with the social political commentary McQueen wants to explore. This sometimes works a treat: the flashback to the shooting of Veronica’s son is shockingly effective. But the film’s dives into the Chicago political scene and the deep class divisions in the city don’t always have the impact they should. There is a marvellous shot – all in one take, mounted on the car bonnet – as Farrell’s Mulligan travels (in a few minutes) from a photo op in a slum back to his palatial family home, emphasising how closely extreme wealth and poverty sit side-by-side in America.

Both candidates are corrupted in different ways. Jamal Manning – a knife behind a smile from Brian Tyree Henry – is a thug talking the talk to line his pockets. Farrell’s Mulligan has more standards – and you wish for more with this fascinating put-upon son part on-the-take, part genuinely wanting to help. His domineering dad – an imperiously terrifying Robert Duvall, who wants to backseat drive his son in office – demeans his son, shouts racial slurs and bullies everyone around him. Politics: your choice is the latest off-spring of a semi-corrupt dynasty or a literal criminal.

But the film doesn’t quite find the room to explore these issues in quite as much detail as you feel it could: it’s a strong hinterland of inequality, but you want more. McQueen however, does have a gift for unique character details that speak volumes: the women’s operation is shadowed by an electric Daniel Kaluuya, as Manning’s calm yet psychotic brother, who listens to self-education podcasts on Black history and shoots people without a second thought. He, of course, underestimates the women as much as everyone else. That’s as much of a political statement as anything else: none of the men in this film seem to even begin to think that they could be in a world which is truly equal.

The film adds a late act reveal that doesn’t quite work – and the film as a whole is trying to do a little too much – but it’s a confirmation of what a gifted and superb film-maker Steve McQueen is. McQueen shoots even conventional scenes in unique and interesting ways – check out his brilliant use of mirrors throughout – uses editing superbly to set tone and is brilliant at drawing the best from talented actors. Widows is crammed full of terrifically staged scenes and gallops along with pace and excitement. It’s a fine example of a great director turning a genre film into something deeper.

King Richard (2021)

King Richard (2021)

Richard Williams creates two of the greatest tennis stars ever in this easy-viewing star vehicle

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Cast: Will Smith (Richard Williams), Aunjanue Ellis (Oracene “Brandy” Price), Saniyya Sidney (Venus Williams), Demi Singleton (Serena Williams), Jon Bernthal (Rick Macci), Tony Goldwyn (Paul Cohen), Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew (Tunde Price), Danielle Lawson (Isha Price), Layla Crawford (Lyndrea Price)

Sports movies have a very reliable formula. There’s the initial promise, early success, adversity, obstacles, a moment of doubt, a renewal of commitment and a final success. I think it’s fair to say that King Richard pretty much hits all the beats you expect. In fact, its pretty much exactly the film you expect it to be when it starts and doubles down hard on the charisma and charm of its star.

King Richard tells the story of how the Williams Sisters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), took their very first steps towards dominating the world of tennis, as told through the eyes of their father Richard (Will Smith). Richard Williams had been determined from almost the moment his children were born, that he would never stop working (and push them) to build lives that would take them away from the working-class ghetto he grew up in. Teaching himself tennis coaching, from the moment they can hold a racket the girls are coached. But, being working class and black in a white-middle-class sport, Richard must work night-and-day to win professional coaching and playing opportunities for his daughters. Not to mention, struggling to ensure that they don’t forget their roots or get chewed up and spat out by the sport.

First and foremost, King Richard is a showpiece for Will Smith. The part fits him like a glove: Williams a larger-than-life, force-of-“Will” role that feels about 2/3rds Williams and 1/3rd Smith. With Williams fast-talking patter, never-give-up determination and absolute commitment to protecting his loved ones, the role plays to all Smith’s strengths. Smith gives a quintessential movie-star performance, which to-be-honest often feels like a Will Smith personality role (the modern equivalent of a Cary Grant performance), but is very entertaining because few people are as good at crafting their personae to benefit a movie as Smith is. Smith is heartfelt, earnest, loveable, sometimes slapable (Note: I wrote that before Smith’s slap-heard-around-the-world was forever attached to his Oscar-winning performance), but always a charming guy you root for.

Which is odd, as Richard Williams is a man with a mixed reputation. He was a demanding, argumentative, often controlling presence who irritated and alienated far more people on the tour than he befriended. Some saw him as a self-promoter, others as a man at times causing problems for his daughter’s careers. King Richard doesn’t shy away from showing these qualities – the awkwardness, the temper, the selfishness, the arrogance – but presents them all in the best possible light. The film is purest hagiography and Richard Williams is always vindicated in all his calls.

Awkwardly the film is also determined to give him all the credit for the Williams’ sisters success. Now there is merit in this – and the script was developed with the sister’s input, so it feels a bit presumptuous to get angry on their behalf. The sisters would never have become what they are if their father had not put rackets in their hands so young and invested hours in training them. Similarly, they would not have been as fully-rounded people without his constant mantra about family, humility and hard work. But also, they did have quite a bit of talent themselves – and certainly they profited from lessons they picked up from the other coaches they worked with.

However, one of the points King Richard is gently making – and it is gently made, as if the film was worried its crowd-pleasing potential might have been affected if it banged this drum too hard – is that Williams had to be a domineering figure because he was fighting against a racial divide in the sport. He feels out of place in the tennis country clubs because he is. No one else on the junior tour is anything other than white and well off. Every coach and trainer is applying methods that have worked for affluent middle-class athletes, without considering any adjustment might be needed for two young women coming from a totally different background.

You can argue the hagiography is partially a course correction from years of the only black father and coach on the tour being denounced as uppity, loud-mouthed, self-obsessed and intrusive. Its still made clear he shares these traits with many other tour parents, but adding to it a massive dose of supportive parenting. There are moments when the film addresses how Williams’ obsession that he knows best might just be starting to run the risk of alienating his daughters: in particular Aunjanue Ellis delivers a blistering late speech (which probably got her an Oscar nomination by itself, so compellingly is it performed) where she lays out in no-uncertain-terms Williams many character flaws and damaging behaviours. (Coincidentally the film’s most compelling dramatic scene).

Maybe a bit of hagiography is what we need from a film designed to be an uplifting, triumph against the odds and celebration of one man’s fatherly love and devotion to give his daughters a chance to change their stars. The film is professionally directed by Green and some of the titbits of the sisters early training (throwing American footballs to build service strength among others) is fascinating.

The film is probably at least twenty minutes too long and starts at some points to repeat the same beats again and again. It doesn’t really do anything new and is exactly the sort of film you could predict it being. But it has some good performances, Smith is at the top of his (Oscar-winning) game, and it is an enjoyable, if predictable, feel-good watch.

Ford v Ferrari (Le Mans '66) (2019)

Christian Bale as maverick driver Ken Miles in the functional but fun Ford v Ferrari

Director: James Mangold

Cast: Matt Damon (Caroll Shelby), Christian Bale (Ken Miles), Jon Bernthal (Lee Iacocca), Caitriona Balfe (Mollie Miles), Tracy Letts (Henry Ford II), Josh Lucas (Leo Beebe), Noah Jupe (Peter Miles), Remo Girone (Enzo Ferrari), Ray McKinnon (Phil Remington), JJ Feild (Roy Lunn), Jack McMullen (Charlie Agapiou)

There are few more exhilarating things than going really, really damn fast. It’s a primal glee that James Mangold’s racing film Ford v Ferrari (or Le Mans ’66 as it seems to be known over here) taps into, roaring with exciting, fast-paced energy lashed onto a good old buddy movie as two plucky underdogs get the chance to overturn the champs and claim the title. It’s the story of any number of sports movies, but it still works here. It ain’t broke, after all.

It’s the early 1960s and the sales of the Ford Company are down: the baby boomers don’t want to be driving the dull, safe cars of their parents. They want something super sexy. Despite his hesitation Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is persuaded the best way to get that sexy image is to get a racing car – and if he can’t buy Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) company, then by hell he’ll spend whatever it takes to give Ford the best racing team in the world. Targeting the Le Mans 24 hour race, he recruits retired-driver-turned-designer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to mastermind building a car – and Shelby recruits demanding, prickly, maverick Brit driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to help him design it and then drive the thing. But what to do when Miles’ blunt plain-speaking and individuality looks like it won’t make him the best spokesman for selling Ford cars?

On the surface Ford v Ferrari is pretty much your standard Sports film. Two teams, an underdog and a champion, a pair of mavericks who think outside the box, the struggle for success – met with initial failure before victory – all told through a familiar structure of brothers-in-arms, obstructing suits, supportive wives at home and plenty of carefully detailed expert recreation of sporting events. It’s a collection of familiar ingredients, but very well mixed together by Mangold (one of Hollywood’s finest middle-rank directors, a sort of heir to Lumet).

The real twist however is that the rivalry is not really about Ford and Ferrari. In fact the film might have been better titled Ford vs Ford. Because the main thing standing in the way of Shelby and Miles isn’t Ferrari – with whom they actually have a rivalry built on mutual respect – but with the bottom-line, sales-first suits who are backing them. It’s a parallel with everything where sales and the buck count more than anything, but you feel Mangold might well have related it most to Hollywood producers. What is Ken Miles, but the genius auteur director who the money-men just won’t trust to churn out the mass-market product they need to lift the share price? Henry Ford (very drily played by Tracy Letts) may have one visceral moment of excitement when placed in the passenger seat of a fast car – but fundamentally he doesn’t give a damn about the sport at all, except how it could help him shift a few more Mustangs.

Shelby and Miles’ struggles are not with the car, the engineering problems or Ferrari – they’re with the Ford VPS (in particular Josh Lucas’ incomparably smarmy Leo Beebe, a corporate man to his fingertips who probably bleeds stock tips) who want a product they can sell, far more than a product that can win. Obstacles are constantly thrown towards Shelby and Miles from their bosses – everything from engine design to race strategy receives a series of notes, comments and instructions from the Ford hierarchy. The choice of driver is most important of all – and they don’t want the demanding Ken Miles behind the wheel of their car. Because mavericks like that don’t sell Mustangs.

As Miles, Christian Bale gives a performance of pure enjoyment. Juggling a version of his own natural accent (which sounds odd – part cockney, part scouse – but works brilliantly) Bale gives the part just the right amount of that peculiar chippy Britishness, that resentment of people in authority, that hostile reaction to the stench of bullshit. Driven, determined but totally unwilling to suffer fools – exhibited almost immediately with him dressing down a prat who isn’t a good enough driver to handle the sports car he’s purchased – Miles is clearly never going to be the company man Ford wants. But with his passion for “that perfect lap”, his determination to work night and day to achieve that and – in a nice change – his warmth for his family and equal decision making with his wife (a slightly thankless part for Catriona Balfe) he’s a character you quickly take to your heart. It’s a great, charisma-led performance from Bale, who also gets nearly all the best lines.

It does suck a bit of the oxygen from Damon, who plays the straight-man as Shelby who is just as passionate but can (just about) speak Corporatese. With a Texan drawl, Damon does the legwork of the movie extremely generously, quietly driving many of the scenes and handling much of the more emotional arc of the movie. The two actors form a superb chemistry – peaking with a hilarious fight scene, your chance to see Batman clobber Jason Bourne with a loaf of bread (both actors, famous for muscular fight scenes, clearly enjoy a fight scene straight out of Bridget Jones). It’s a bromance that really works – and carries at certain points a genuine emotional force.

Mangold packages this material perfectly – and the racing sequences are brilliantly done, engrossing, speaker-shaking displays of racing, fabulously edited. The film itself is probably too long, and the sections away from the race track are sometimes so familiar in their structure and tone that they sometimes drag a little bit, as if the fierce momentum of the racing scenes can’t carry across to the rest of the film. But with fine performances and expert handling, this is certainly a number you’ll be happy to test drive.

Sicario (2015)


Emily Blunt goes to war with the Cartels, not realising she’s just a pawn.

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Benicio del Toro (Alejandro Gillick), Josh Brolin (Matt Graver), Daniel Kaluuya (Reggie Wayne), Maximiliano Hernández (Silvio), Victor Garber (Dave Jennings), Jon Bernthal (Ted), Jeffrey Donovan (Steve Forsing), Raoul Trujillo (Rafael), Julio Cedillo (Fausto Alarcón)

The War on Drugs. Smack a military title on it and it helps people think that there is some sort of system to it, that it carries some sort of rules of engagement. Whereas the truth is that it is a nebulous non-conflict where the sides are completely unclear and the collaborators are legion.

Sicario follows a shady covert operation, run by a combination of the FBI, the CIA, Columbian and Mexican law enforcement and, well, other interested parties. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited to the task force because someone with her experience is needed, and finds herself working for maverick, almost pathologically unconcerned, CIA man Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Graver, in turn, is working closely with a South American freelance operative (Del Toro) whose background and goals remain a mystery to Kate. Far from a clear targeted operation, Kate slowly realises the operation is effectively an off-the-books black op, which she has almost no control or influence over.

Villeneuve has directed here an accomplished, if rather cold, thriller. It denies its audience the release of action, the reassurance of justice or the satisfaction of integrity being rewarded. Instead the film takes place in a hazy never-world, never fully explained to either the viewer or Kate (our surrogate), where it gradually becomes almost impossible to tell who is working for whom and for what reasons – and there is a feeling that those in the film don’t know either.

The whole film has a sense of Alice in Wonderland about it (at the end of the film our heroine literally goes down a tunnel into a strange new land). Emily Blunt’s Kate seems at first to be on the ball, but events throughout the film demonstrate time and again that she is hopelessly out of her depth and little more than a fig leaf to enable her new bosses to bend laws to breaking point. Instead the world she finds herself in is dark, unsettling, confusing and lacks any sense of clear moral “sides”.

In fact, that is one of the most interesting things about this movie. It presents a female lead who is constantly manipulated and defeated throughout the film. Kate is in fact totally ineffective throughout and serves no real narrative purpose to the events of the film other than allowing those events to take place. At the same time, she’s strong-willed, she’s determined and she’s fiercely principled, as well as being an engaging character (helped immensely by Emily Blunt’s empathetic and intelligent performance).

This works so well because Kate represents what we would normally expect in a film – we keep waiting for that moment where she makes a successful stand, or blows the scandal open, or brings someone to justice – this never happens. Instead the film is a clear indication of the powerlessness of the liberal and the just in a world of violence, aggression and corruption – that people like Kate will always be steamrollered by people who are willing to smilingly do anything to achieve their goals and don’t play by any semblance of rules that we would recognise. In a more traditional film, she would end the film arresting some (or all) of the other characters with a defiant one-liner. Instead, she never lays a glove on anyone.

The flip side of her naïve optimism here is Benecio Del Toro’s nihilistic, dead-behind-the-eyes mysterious freelance operative. Del Toro is magnetic here, his character a dark mirror image of the role he played in Traffic, as if that character witnessed every kid he watched playing baseball in that film gunned down before him. He’s like a dark growly end-justifying-the-means shark, who conveys just enough of a flicker of paternal interest in Kate (does he see her as a reminder of what he used to be like?) to show there is someone still human in there. He prowls the edges of scenes before seizing the movie by the scruff of the neck in the final quarter with horrifying brutality.

Del Toro’s rumpled smoothness is a perfect match for the ink jet blacks and bright desert shine of this wonderfully photographed film. Roger Deakin’s cinematography is beautiful to look at and also rich with variation and imagination – from bleached out, hazy mornings to red dawns, from subterranean tunnels to neon lit nightclubs, Deakins presents images in striking new ways. The use of sound is also brilliant in the film – lingering, unsettling silences throughout slowly give way to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautiful spare score. There are fine supporting performances from Maximiliano Hernández as a doomed cop, sleepwalking through a corrupt life, Daniel Kaluuya, who is very good as an even more idealistic FBI agent who thinks he understands the world better than he does, as well as from Josh Brolin and Victor Garber.

Sicario offers no comfortable answers. In fact, it offers almost no answers at all. The world it shows us is one where there is no conventional right or wrong, only attempts to control the chaos. Our expectations as a viewer are so persistently subverted that it almost demands to be seen twice to truly understand what sort of story it is actually trying to tell. This helps to make it a cold and distancing film – but it lives in a cold, distant world where sometimes you reach the final frame and only then begin to understand who the baddies might have been and how you’ve only helped funnel the badness towards a controlled point rather than slow down or stop it.