Christian Bale driving around in a Batmobile was pretty cool, but just wait till you see him yelling “Giddy-up!” during an exceedingly speedy turn in a race car.
Directed by James Mangold (“Logan”), “Ford v Ferrari” (★★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Friday) is a rah-rah and very retro automobile underdog story that zooms along at an expertly crafted clip and features Bale and Matt Damon as its central yin-yang duo. No matter if you’re not into speedy vehicles and sports movies: Mangold’s film is a testament to taking on The Man – in this case, a Detroit auto powerhouse – and having a buddy’s back even when he hits you with a loaf of Wonder Bread.
In 1963, the Ford Motor Company is pumping out tons of cars but sales are slipping. To appeal to the kids, they want the cache of a winner and try to buy out Ferrari, which is on an impressive winning streak at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. When the takeover doesn’t take, they shift gears to beating the Italian racing icon on the track, which results in more failure.
Enter Carroll Shelby (Damon), the last American driver to win the vaunted French racing event. Now an innovative car designer after leaving racing because of heart issues, the steely Texas is recruited by Ford marketing executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) to engineer a car that can upend Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans.
Shelby reaches out to his friend, eccentric British racer Ken Miles (Bale), to help. He’s a vehicular savant able to feel the tiniest details about what’s wrong with a car but considered too troublesome to work with for most people. But Shelby and Miles are simpatico when it comes to a deeper understanding of cars – both espouse the wonders of becoming one with your car at 7,000 rpm – and their teaming proves fruitful on the way to a showdown with Ferrari in France, even with Ford's stuffiest suits being a major headache.
Mangold is aces with the racing action, especially in showcasing the iffy conditions at Le Mans; watching Miles whip around in rain and fog at night is thrilling, though crazy stuff happens in the daytime, too. During one lap, Miles’ door refuses to close and it’s the most relatably harrowing thing in the movie.
But the best dramatic tension comes off track, as the bigger foes for Shelby and Miles are their Ford overlords. Tracy Letts is all magnificent bluster as CEO Henry Ford II, and there’s a fantastic scene between him and Damon where the automobile giant reverts to child-like glee during a drive. Josh Lucas impressively doles out a lot of smarm as Ford’s oh-so-punchable marketing head Leo Beebe, who makes quick enemies with Miles.
While there are plenty of obstacles and things going vroom, the two reasons "Ford" works so very well are named Damon and Bale: They're endlessly entertaining as loyal dudes who work out their differences through brotherly roughhousing.
Wielding a warm Texas twang, Damon has the subtler role as the cagey Shelby, who's often caught between personal relationship and professional commitments. Yet the movie is more Miles' story, especially at its heart. As much of an oddball as Bale's car whisperer is in the garage and behind the wheel, he's grounded by the unending support of wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe). Their presence also puts the brakes on any unnecessary testosterone.
"Ford v Ferrari" veers enough from the staid sports-movie template, including an unexpectedly melancholic coda, to create an enjoyable and engaging drama well worth the ride.