‘Le Mans ’66’ review: sluggish auto-based drama never gets out of third gear

Score

Like an unreliable car, 'Le Mans '66' works only in spurts

Matt Damon’s Carroll Shelby is tearing through winding bends, burning rubber. The track is passing rapidly underneath him, his hands skilfully navigating each corner with maximum concentration. Although the driver might be capable, the vehicle is not. It coughs and splutters, before Shelby is forced to pit. Unfortunately for us, Le Mans ’66 is equally unreliable.

James Mangold’s petrol-soaked new drama starts as it finishes – by putting the pedal to the metal.  What falls in between is solid, occasionally stolid, and often exhilarating. It’s a story of Ford’s 1960s race car duels with Ferrari and has been a long-discussed project in Hollywood. Rumours surfaced a decade ago that Michael Mann had taken up a screenplay written by Jason Keller – and was courting the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Now, with Keller’s screenplay developed by the Butterworth brothers, Jez and John-Henry, Logan director James Mangold has stepped into the breach. Christian Bale and Matt Damon have been selected to bring it to life – and bring it to life they have (sort of). Sadly, the fact remains that whilst wheel-to-wheel action is indeed electrifying, car mechanics are as dry as a sun-baked racetrack. Out of necessity, Le Mans ’66 covers both.

Shelby is forced into retirement after a routine check-up reveals high blood pressure. His pal, fearsome automotive technician Ken Miles (Bale) cuts a fish-out-of-water figure as a Brummie in the hot Californian sunshine. A man mercurial of temperament and scientific of mindset, his friendship with the placid Shelby is an unlikely one. Around them, the competitive racing world is ruled by Ferrari – much to the chagrin of mass-market manufacturer Ford, who sniff an opportunity to alter public perception and try to buy the Italian giant for $10m. Owner Enzo Ferrari is insulted and dismisses the offer. As a result, Ford set about challenging Ferrari’s dominance – and so commences the car equivalent of the space race.

Le Mans '66

Checkered flag: Christian Bale celebrates a race win in ‘Le Mans ’66’. Credit: 20th Century Fox

With an able team, Shelby and Miles build the formidable GT40. Marred by in-fighting and squabbles with their Ford paymasters, its creation causes conflict which spills into subterfuge as all roads lead to the titular event – the 24 Hour contest at Le Mans. Cue the thrilling final third of the film.

Christian Bale’s knack for portraying real life individuals – see The Fighter and Vice – is well-known. The physical adjustments aren’t so significant this time around but he is no less magnetic for it. Particular delight is sourced from his droll asides, which slip out like a Jeremy Clarkson critique from The Grand Tour. Damon’s everyman charm, on the other hand, fires on all cylinders and the two share some sparky chemistry.

And yet, for a film about quick starts, breakneck speed and explosive confrontations, it spends a significant time coasting in the middle lane, stuck in third gear. Le Mans ’66 is well-made, but unremarkable stylistically and the drama is suffocated by a sluggish start. It makes a late surge, certainly, but it can’t quite snag a podium finish.

Details

Director: James Mangold
Starring: Christian Bale, Matt Damon
Release date: 15 November 2019