Amongst the many qualities of Le Mans 66/Ford V Ferrari is arguably the best movie foe of the year: step forward Mr Josh Lucas.
On the quiet, I think the modern blockbuster movie villain is in a state of some disrepair. Comic book movies for instance now feel the need to pack lots of them into one film as a rule, or have lost the ability to make them feel like hugely compelling foes in the midst of a cavalcade of visual effects. Quality movie antagonists in big studio films are feeling like an endangered species.
The class of 2019, then, has featured a villain in Spider-Man: Far From Home, who I found fun to watch, but the character concerned pretty forgettable as an antagonist. Pennywise in It Chapter Two was largely sidelined for my money, with effects work instead taking over from what worked so well in Chapter One. Jafar in Aladdin and Scar in The Lion King both had me pining more for the impact of the originals (that’s not slighting the newer takes, just that they felt a little been there done that). Thanos, meanwhile, had wreaked the bulk of his havoc last year, and was a bit more of a CG pussy cat this. In truth, none of them really got under my skin, and none of them – this year at least – felt like forces that couldn’t quite easily be defeated.
Thank goodness then for Josh Lucas.
The veteran of an impressive range of movies and TV shows – chances are you’ll have spotted him in one of A Beautiful Mind, Sweet Home Alabama or more recently the TV show Yellowstone – he was cast in the film known as Le Mans 66 in the UK (Ford V Ferrari in the US) back in the summer of 2018. Director James Mangold added him to the ensemble in the role of Leo Beebe, and it was routinely reported by outlets, without really generating much attention.
After all, it wasn’t the highest profile casting notice even for the film itself, given that Matt Damon and Christian Bale were in the lead roles. But come the final cut of the movie, Lucas would prove to be an invaluable part of the ensemble. And he’d emerge – for me at least – as the standout movie big movie villain of the year.
I went to see the film for the second time over the weekend, and on this occasion – when I was done marvelling at Christian Bale’s tour of the West Midlands accent (“fizzy pop”) – I sat back and doubly enjoyed the best boo hiss foe I’ve seen in a film for ages. And that’d be Lucas, who doesn’t get an awful lot of screen time, but makes each frame count. Here’s a man who – in conjunction with strong direction and writing – nailed just what he needed to do to add to the film, and very much did it.
It helps that in the context of the film, Lucas plays that most hateable and relatable of foes: Corporate Bastard. An alien with superpowers? They look good, but few of us can directly relate to one. Yet how many of us haven’t encountered a party pooper wearing a suit in our lives, though? I instantly knew where I stood with him as soon as he appeared, and he was far higher up the food chain than me.
As Leo, then, Lucas is the oily ambitious PR man, the snooty, well-spoken ball of shithousery with board-level clout, who fulfils the standard movie job of curtailing the maverick creatives. It’s not the most radical positioning of characters, having the suit trying to spoil the fun of the people trying to get the job done. But I haven’t seen such a role done with such relish in a long time. In fact, I’d argue that not just limited to this year, he’s the best old fashioned (in a good sense) villain of his ilk I’ve seen in ages. He raised my heckles every time he spoke, and in Lucas’s skilful hands, even the pacifists in the audience might entertain the notion of clenching their fists and considering smacking him squarely in his bastard chops. The character practically slithers onto the screen, firmly with the ear of the ultimate boss, and oozes himself into the position of power he craves. And our heroes are all-but-powerless to stop him.
It’s an unfair use of power, and again, who’s not been on the receiving end of that?
I should note that I do hear criticisms of the character. That there are, some argue, moments where the character of Leo exists simply to be an obstruction. But I don’t actually agree. On second viewing, I not only had an added appreciation for Lucas’ fifth Dan levels of smarm, but also how the character fits expertly into the puzzle.
This is the bit where I go a little bit spoilery. I won’t go into great detail, but I’ll pop the spoilery paragraph between two pictures. Right now, in fact…
Because here’s the crux.
What makes the character of Leo work so well on screen – appreciating that he’s based on a real person – is that ultimately, he’s right. That whilst his tactics bring back most people’s memories of some flavour of boss from hell, his nous when it matters the most is pretty much spot on.
In the film – which takes some liberties with the real story behind the events depicted – he spots a PR opportunity, ultimately, that goes against what anyone involved on the track would choose to pursue. He issues the kind of order most of us would like to reject with barely a breath. Yet given the broader aims that Ford had in entering Le Mans in the first place, it’s hard to suggest his suggestion wasn’t the right way to go. And that’s without discussing how it all pans out, for those who haven’t seen the film.
That’s the spoiler bit over.
More and more, especially as audiences are savvier and more expectant than ever, a good movie antagonist is such a tricky character to pull off. Of course, not every movie needs one, but in a big blockbuster production such as Le Mans 66, the benefit is obvious. Leo puts obstacles constantly in the way of Shelby and Miles as they look to develop and race the fastest car they can. He gives the narrative extra weight, puts fresh conflict into the film, and also, he’s a character that’s simply deliciously enjoyable to watch and quietly boo.
And you know what? Leo is one of the most entertaining elements of a hugely entertaining film.
Congratulations, then, to Josh Lucas, to James Mangold, to Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller. Because by not getting carried away with wildly over the top stakes, between them they’ve realised that the most effective foes not only have a strong part to play in a good story, but they also have to be somewhere near the planet Earth.
What’s more, because Le Mans 66 is a one-off, with no sequel – although I nearly went for the Le Mans 67 gag – Leo is a one-shot villain, who won’t be diluted by being made more likeable in future productions. There’s no spin-off TV series, no origin story: what you see is all you’re getting. Thus, if you need a good, old fashioned hiss, avoid the comic book movies for the minute: I diagnose a trip to Le Mans instead. And make sure you make your boos silent ones.
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