With a great cast, fascinating story and old-school studio vibe, “Ford v. Ferrari” nearly clicks on all cylinders. Length-wise, the movie takes a few laps too many, with a (perhaps unavoidable) overabundance of racing scenes. Beyond that, it’s a wonderfully polished product, proving that Hollywood can still make ‘em like they used to.
Matt Damon and Christian Bale provide the fuel-injected star power, in a way that brings to mind the Leonardo DiCaprio-Brad Pitt pairing on “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” But they have plenty of support behind them, none better than Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II, who, in the 1960s, got the bright idea of seeking to prove that Ford could produce a racecar capable of beating Ferrari, as much out of a petty vendetta as anything else.
Toward that end, Ford and his ambitious marketing chief (and later company steward) Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) recruit Damon’s Carroll Shelby, an upscale car designer whose racing days, due to health concerns, are behind him.
Pledging to beat the Italian powerhouse at Le Mans, the grueling 24-hour competition, Shelby enlists Ken Miles (Bale), an ill-tempered Brit who races with abandon, but whose lack of finesse has left him and his wife (“Outlander’s” Caitriona Balfe) in dire financial straits, with her patience wearing thin.
Of course, there are plenty of hurdles involved, which don’t end with the engineering challenges. Foremost, there’s Ford’s senior lieutenant Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), a classic corporate suit, who dislikes Miles and wants control over Shelby, repeatedly butting heads with him despite Shelby’s insistence that “You can’t win a race by committee.”
Director James Mangold put a different spin on superhero movies with “Logan,” but he’s not looking to reinvent the wheel here. Nevertheless, it’s such a well-conceived project (the script is by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller) that the movie plays like a bracing shot of adrenaline.
Given the era, there are echoes of “The Right Stuff” in these hard men – speed junkies, risking all in their ‘60s-era machines – with Damon as a glib good ol’ boy and Bale as a working stiff with a Dickensian accent who, it’s noted, fought his way across Europe during World War II.
There are, as noted, too many closeups of Bale (who Mangold also directed in the remake “3:10 to Yuma”) circling the track, colorfully barking insults at fellow drivers and “Giddyap” at his car. Those sequences are impressively shot, and the movie never drags, but chalk up that modest flaw as too much of a good thing.
In a moment that nicely encapsulates the film, Iacocca offers a presentation about the post-World War II generation that began driving in the early ‘60s. An image of Sean Connery as James Bond flashes by to illustrate the excitement that they crave, before it’s pointed out that “James Bond does not drive a Ford.”
As movies go, “Ford v. Ferrari” is less a sportscar than a sturdy, respectable star vehicle, outfitted with old-fashioned virtues. While that formula might not leave you shaken, thanks to the crispness of its execution it is, finally, pretty darn stirring.
“Ford v. Ferrari” opens Nov. 15 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.