Matt Damon and Christian Bale get into gear. 20th Century Fox

Movies

Damon, Bale Keep Racing Drama Ford v. Ferrari on the Right Track

You don’t have to be a gearhead or an adrenaline junkie to enjoy this slick crowd-pleaser depicting a pivotal era in the American sports-car industry.

Even when the pace is slow, the cars are fast in Ford v. Ferrari, and that might be enough to satisfy speed freaks and muscle-car enthusiasts.

However, you don’t have to be a gearhead or an adrenaline junkie to enjoy this richly detailed period racing drama that doubles as a cutthroat corporate thriller with a prestigious cast.

It’s a slick crowd-pleaser from director James Mangold (Logan) that embellishes some of the true-life source material, but at least it’s consistently amusing and insightful in portraying the legacy of the 1960s feud between international auto titans.

The battle for supremacy centers on the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans road race, dominated by Italian stalwart Ferrari for many years. That’s when Detroit magnate Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) sees competitive racing as a method of reinvigorating his brand. At first he proposes buying out Ferrari, but instead decides to go it alone.

With some help from marketing chief Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), Ford reaches out to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former champion driver who became a leading designer and innovator.

Their partnership doesn’t go smoothly at first, especially when Shelby insists on using his own driver, the loose-cannon British mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who hardly projects a clean-cut image. Miles “is not a Ford man,” argues one of Ford’s deputies. Yet with Shelby in charge, Ford’s quest for victory comes with a price.

For all the high-octane maneuvering on the asphalt, Ford v. Ferrari spends more time on the race away from the track — during a time of transition in the sports-car industry driven by shifting tastes among baby boomers.

The amusing and insightful screenplay offers a tribute to American ingenuity, even if it’s fueled by egotistical hubris and macho corporate greed. Still, it almost runs out of gas a couple of times before reaching the finish line.

The period re-creation is solid and the performances are terrific. Although fans might quibble that Damon doesn’t much resemble Shelby, his authoritative swagger is convincing. Bale’s latest physical transformation helps him mimic Miles’ larger-than-life unpredictability.

With every rev of the engine or squeal of the tires, the racing sequences are staged with verve to maximize the adrenaline rush. But moviegoers aren’t required to be versed in the intricacies of a turbo-powered engine or brake assembly appreciate this nostalgic ode to a bygone era whose legacy still lingers today.

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