In "Ford V Ferrari," Irish actress Caitriona Balfe stars with Matt Damon and Christian Bale in a big-budget golden age of motor racing caper.
But from the first frame, it's clear that this story isn't going to be set the peace and love flower-power 1960s. Instead, this is a Hot Wheels adventure for middle-aged boys who have swapped out toy cars for real ones.
Because apart from the grown-up cars they drive it seems not much else has changed for these impulsive, hot-tempered, retro James Bonds as they attempt to navigate the adult world. Women barely appear in the film because, I suppose, cooties.
Model turned actress Balfe, 40, really has her work cut out to keep things interesting in this lads versus lads set up. Playing a British housewife married to a race car driver you'd never guess that her real-life career once saw her flying from Paris to Tokyo to model for world-famous fashion houses like Dolce & Gabbana, or that she's fluent in Irish and French. Female accomplishments are surplus to requirement in this two-hour, thirty-two-minute long sausage fest.
The first thing you'll notice about the film is that it seems genuinely nostalgic for those far off days when everyone in the office was white, male and wearing a three-piece suit to work, banishing those silly women to the back offices where they were could make coffee and not much else.
It's surprising to see Caitriona Balfe in the company of these boys to men, to be honest. A straight-talking Irish star on and off-screen (her Twitter account reveals her to be an informed and passionate political observer and her lead role in "Outlander" shows us she has more than enough star quality of her own) she's far from the long-suffering British housewife that she plays in this fast-moving but curiously stale new film.
When we meet her first, Balfe's character Mollie Miles is married to the race car driver and living legend Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and the happy pair live in California with their young son Peter (Noah Jupe).
On the surface, it seems like an idyllic setup but Ken isn't the businessman he thinks he is and when the IRS comes calling he's left with few options to make a crust. Before you can say this a tediously formulaic movie in the making, along comes fellow race car legend Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) with an offer that the hard-pressed Miles can't refuse.
Caroll Shelby and Ken Miles were real people by the way. Miles hailed from Birmingham in England and Shelby was a cowboy-hat-wearing Texan. Two fish out of water in downtown Los Angles, it's no wonder they took to each other at first sight.
Little did they suspect, I imagine, that one day they would one day be played by two of the top-paid male actors in Hollywood in one of the dullest new films of the decade. (Together Bale and Damon are worth about $250 million, according to an online net worth website).
Miles' pronounced Brummie accent is reproduced by Bale, all too faithfully it turns out. His character is presented onscreen as a sort of introverted pill, so his Monty Python accent is even more unintended comedy.
Driving in the Le Mans race, Bale delivers pantomime lines like “Oh no you don't, matey...” Worse, he sings "If You're Happy And You Know It" twice in the film, making me wonder what age he was or was supposed to be.
Damon meanwhile plays a Texan, but a sensitive one, who runs a struggling car dealership where his name as a legendary race driver is actually half the draw for the customers who come by to buy his cars.
Shelby is on doctor's orders not to exert himself due to a growing heart condition, so when Henry Ford II comes calling to ask him to build and drive their latest record-breaker to glory at Le Mans he knows who the only substitute driver will be.
Before you can say "I feel like I have seen this set up a thousand times before," Shelby is begging Miles to drive the new Ford car to the finish line but Miles is, of course, refusing. It's an awkward courtship that results in the pair eventually coming to blows on Miles lawn with Miles's wife pulling up a deck chair to watch the wrestling match.
Spent and panting side by side on the lawn the macho pair soon compare wounds and come to a sort of post-coital agreement. Miles will drive the car as long as he has a say on how and when. Shelby gets his man and the film will finally get its reluctant hero.
Will you care? That's another story entirely. Until this point in the film, the friendless, charmless and near-wordless Miles has been something of a mystery. We need his son Peter to explain what he sees in this monosyllabic old man. Peter is more invested in his dad than he is in himself, we soon realize.
But for most of the film Miles is a hard man to know or like. For a start, actor Bale has dropped a shocking amount of weight to play the gaunt Englishman, then he doubled down on Miles' insularity and sourness. If this man wasn't one of the world's greatest race car drivers would anyone want to spend a minute in his presence, I wonder?
Caitriona Balfe has a job on her hands to humanize Bale's all elbows portrayal, and she struggles mightily to signal exactly what she and Peter see in this dry as a bone Brit. In one scene, in particular, her suspicion about what he and Shelby are cooking up together borders on marital jealousy and fury, in a scene that is supposed to humanize her husband but ends up making you want to slap him yourself.
Why couldn't he have just leveled with his wife? Would it have killed him to tell her he had received a job offer that would save their finances? Did he have to wait until she is literally threatening to drive him off the road to their deaths before he tells her the truth?
What you think of Bale's character and the film may depend on whether you find this kind of boorish behavior charming or maddening. If you're in the latter camp, and I raise my hand here, you'll wonder at all the needless trouble Miles creates for himself. You may even find yourself calling him, in a dialect he would understand, a complete pillock.
Matt Damon is the heart and soul of the film, but like Balfe's character we never find out much about him. He is driven by a desire to bring the world title home to the USA and he's unfailingly dedicated to his surly friend Miles.
But his story takes a back seat to all the macho appendage waving that takes a front seat for most of the film and like Balfe, we come away wondering who these also starring characters were and what they wanted?
Winning isn't everything and in "Ford V Ferrari" it turns out it isn't anything.
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