At the beginning of the 1980s, the DeLorean Motor Car was a stainless steel dream machine, but by the end, it was an international joke
But in between was a shocking story of drugs, desperation and double-dealing you could make into a film - and in Driven that film has finally arrived.
In Driven director Nick Hamm (who gave us The Journey, that diverting film about the unexpected friendship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness) tells the story of the man who personified 1980's excess, carmaker John DeLorean.
If the last thing your country was famous for the building was the Titanic, could you blame people if they look twice at you when you tell them that you're opening a new car factory?
Because Driven is written by Colin Bateman, a screenwriter who hails from Bangor, County Down, it is particularly clued into the Irish aspects of DeLorean's long-forgotten dream machine, and we never actually see the southwestern Belfast car factory that produced it.
It doesn't matter. Instead, Hamm and Bateman tell us the story of DeLorean's rise and spectacular fall as seen through the eyes of Jim Hoffman (played by Jason Sudeikis) the small-time con man who befriends him and then later sets him up in an ambitious FBI sting operation.
The story is insane, all the more so because it's based closely on what really happened. First, we meet Hoffman, a player who literally gets hooked by his own schemes. He's the kind of man who, if offered a choice between riches earned honestly and a hundred bucks raised through a con, will pick the con.
As his wife, Ellen (an excellent Judy Greer) says early on in the proceedings, “I knew what I was getting into when I married you. You're not a bad man, you're just an idiot.”
Sudeikis shows us Hoffman as a man who is treading water, but whose heart is unmistakably in the right place. It's a perfect role for actor, who excels at playing on the surface buffoons who mask a bracing shrewdness underneath.
At the start of the film, it looks like DeLorean's masterplan is working. He has the financing, he has opened his Belfast factory, there is strong consumer demand. He's the embodiment of the American Dream, on the surface at least if you don't look too closely.
There is no question what his DeLorean Motor Car means for war-torn Northern Ireland either. He has designed a car, built a factory, created 2000 jobs, in around the clock operation that produces 30,000 cars a year and he has done it all within 18 months. He's the kind of godsend the ravaged society needs.
But when complications hit hard DeLorean needs more cash, at one point saying he needs 90 million but that Detroit is scared of him, because General Motors thinks it has raised a monster. And if GM is scared of him that means so is corporate America. He's run out of luck.
One exchange underlines why DeLorean chose Belfast to be the manufacturing base in the first place. “Do you know how many people were murdered in Northern Ireland last year?” he asks faltering American backers. “90 people. Do you know how many people were murdered in Detroit? 900. Do the f--king math!” he scoffs.
What ties Hoffman and DeLorean together, other than just their genuine friendship, is the strength of Hoffman's touching belief in the troubled car manufacturer. He seems to idolize him unironically and Lee Pace as DeLorean makes you understand just how much this secretly means to the 80's icon.
“I think it's cute the way you always get sad when he's out of town,” says Hoffman's wife at one point and we can see that it's literally true.
For 18 months whilst his factory builds the new cars that help to bring stability and a measure of peace to a blighted place, Hoffman doesn't hear from his old friend. And when the cars finally start shipping the initial reviews are far from glowing.
A party in Los Angles to mark the first shipments is memorably interrupted by a phone call from talk show host Johnny Carson, who a guest unwisely put on the loudspeakers. Expecting to hear fulsome praise DeLorean is stunned when Carson, who has sunk 600,000 of his own money in the project, instead reads him the riot act.
“John DeLorean you sold me a piece of s—t,” Carson thunders. “It broke down five blocks from the dealership.” Squirming in front of his guests now DeLorean assures him he got one of the new ones. “There's bound to be some teething problems early in the run. We will send you another,” he soothes. “I got another one and that broke down too. You're a fu--ing fraud,” Carson yells and hangs up. So much for the launch party.
So there is a lot of fun to be had in this film and in the chemistry between Pace and Sudeikis, who are each others yin and yang. There's a surprising amount of tender feeling too because although they are wildly different from each other, both men are outsiders, both recognize that they share a sort of alienation from the world and people and that realization brings them closer.
As word gets out that the DeLorean Motor Car is clearly not the second coming of the Ford Model T, DeLorean starts losing key investors, threatening the entire operation. “I need your help,” DeLorean pleads with Hoffman. “I need your help Jim. There are 2000 people in Belfast who depend on me. I can walk away from this and still be a very rich guy, but I'm not that guy, I need this, can you help me Jim?”
The kind of help DeLorean is asking for is the kind that can raise 30 million in ten days. The kind that you don't meet in Wall Street offices. “You know people,” DeLorean tells Jim. “In Bolivia, Thailand, all the rest of it. You know people.”
Clearly, Hoffman is not being asked to go to a bank, it's a request to be taken to his mob ties. This in turns means a meeting with Morgan Hetrick, the biggest drug dealer on the west coast and the subject of a major FBI investigation.
“You don't have to do this,” Jim counsels. “These are bad people and once they get their hooks in you...” But DeLorean is looking at the bigger picture. “There are an awful lot of families in Northern Ireland who need this. Who are not afraid to stand up. And if they can do it goddamn right I can as well.”
Who knew he had a heart? What's surprising is that for two men who will stop at literally nothing to realize their ambitious dreams, they both have principles that you might not expect them to. What Driven does very well is make you like them (Pace inhabits his character remarkably well, even nailing his distinctive voice, you will buy his performance from the opening scene).
What Driven ends up being about is the American Dream, in particular, that feeling you had about the future when you were young and untested, the feeling that you want to recapture. Both of these flawed but thoroughly decent men simply dream of giving the people they love the moment that changed their own lives.
“I want that feeling back,” says DeLorean near the end. “To be driving down the street in the car you built yourself and you know your dad is watching you and you just swell up.” Driven takes on a ride that takes us very far from innocence, but it reminds us of what's best in us too.
Driven is now playing and is available on digital and on-demand.