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Le Mans arena for epic ‘Ford v Ferrari’

“Ford v Ferrari” is a loud but tender mid-century bromance between legendary automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and irascible racecar driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Their racing days seemingly over, the former is bored by selling cars and the latter is bored by repairing them, so the highly competitive dudes decide to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans together.

They just need a bunch of money. That’s where Ford execs Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) come in. The suits preen like Don Draper and promise to bring sexy back to mid-century American automobiles. They convince Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, doing perhaps the best acting in the film), a fattish mediocrity, they need to go see how Ferrari makes their winning racecars. After being referred to as “a greasy wop,” Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) infers that the portly Ford scion is nothing but the winner of the golden sperm award, and dismisses the team: “Go back to Michigan and your big ugly factory.”

Ford II gets fired up and writes Shelby a blank check. Some months later, he has a nine-million-dollar car to gaze upon and feels a “natural red-bloodedness” gazing upon its sleek curves. Ford II screams his way through a test drive with Shelby after insisting he was “born ready.” Miles uses piquant phrasing to suggest improvements (e.g. “The car feels like a bag of squirrels”) and Shelby fine tunes it with engineer Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon), a guy who looks like he’s spent the last 50 years eating bologna sandwiches while inhaling gas fumes and cigarette smoke.

A word about accents, which are an amusing distraction throughout. Playing Shelby, a Texan, Damon spends the first scene sounding just like Ed Tom Bell in “No Country for Old Men” then does the rest of film sounding like Matt Damon. And then there’s Bale, whose British accent here sounds put on because he’s always doing an American accent (in spite of actually being Welsh).

Despite some hammy elements — there are an incredible number of shots of men holding wrenches — the racing scenes are uniformly effective. After all, director James Mangold made “Walk the Line” and a couple of the least bad recent superhero flicks. Plus, in Ken Miles, Bale has a more compelling character than Batman to play. Despite a long runtime, “Ford v Ferrari” hums along, with decent downbeats between all the vroom vroom. Remember that these were long road races—featuring breaks for tea!—not the four hours of left turns you see on television today.

At the 1966 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance challenge, Miles must race with a car door that won’t close and Shelby brings plenty of gamesmanship from pit row, fully embracing the NASCAR mantra, “If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’.” Many sequences are pretty dadgum exciting, with Miles pushing until there’s nothing left to see in the rearview mirror. It’s also important to note that Ford II takes a helicopter to dinner while the crew eats axle grease sandwiches. There’s a reason that the richest man around is referenced throughout as “The Deuce.”

Now showing

“Ford v Ferrari” is streaming on HBO Max. Rated PG-13. Running time 2:32. Visit play.hbomax.com.

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