'Ford V Ferrari' Review: James Mangold's Racing Drama Thrills When On The Track, Slogs When Off [TIFF 2019]

Ford v Ferrari is an old-school Hollywood drama – the type that is in short supply these days. It has movie stars! It has an uplifting, all-American message! It has timely needle-drops that make you perk-up and say, "Hey, I love that song!" We need more movies like this, especially these days – when multiplexes are overrun with franchises and superheroes. But that doesn't excuse how dull long stretches of James Mangold's racing pic are. Whenever the film hits the track, it's exciting as hell. But as soon as the cars are parked, all the life runs out of this thing like gas from a leaking tank.

It's the 1960s, and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) dominates the 24 Hours of Le Mans race with his slick, sleek cars. But what if an American made car won the race? That's the dream of Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), vice-president of Ford, who hopes to boost limp Ford car sales with a big, flashy publicity stunt: the construction of a Ford racer that can win Le Mans. CEO Henry Ford II (a scene-stealing and dryly hilarious Tracy Letts) is skeptical to the idea, but not entirely dismissive. The same can't be said for Ford exec Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), a sniveling, smarmy villain character who might as well be twirling a big mustache every time he says something.

To realize this dream, Ford turns to cowboy hat connoisseur Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon), one of the few Americans to have won Le Mans in the past. Shelby's racing days are over thanks to a weak heart, and now he spends his days designing race cars, most of which are driven by the ornery Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a rude, crude, short-tempered bloke who is also one hell of a driver.

And so the stage is set for director Mangold and writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller to stage a saga in which Shelby, Miles and their team try, fail, try and fail again, striving to design the perfect car to beat those pesky Italians. Mangold excels at shooting the numerous driving sequences, bringing us right into the action as extremely fast cars rocket down stretches of roads at suicidal speeds. These action-packed moments are the best in the film, and it's easy to get wrapped up in all the excitement accompanied by a vibrant score from Marco Beltrami.

Unfortunately, Ford v Ferrari can't stay inside cars for its entire runtime, which means Mangold has to slam on the brakes to focus on bland character moments that are clearly meant to be emotional, but never quite connect. We never really care about Miles's personal life with his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and son (Noah Jupe). And Shelby's clashes with the micromanaging Beebe grow tedious.

That's not to say the cast isn't giving it their all. Damon's laid-back, easy-going Shelby is affable enough. But it's Bale's Miles that's the real draw. The actor cuts loose, playing Miles as a quirky loud-mouth prone to leaning heavily into slang and hard-core Britishisms. There are times where Bale is in danger of going over-the-top, but he usually reigns it back in. Usually.

All the elements are in place to have made Ford v Ferrari a winner. But the script is so paint-by-numbers, running through biopic cliches without a care in the world, that it's hard to stand up and cheer for what's up on the screen. If you're in the mood for a series of incredibly exciting racing scenes, Ford v Ferrari delivers. If you're looking for anything deeper than that, this isn't the ride for you.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10