Damon and Bale jump-start a winning on-screen partnership in Le Mans '66

Matt Damon and Christian Bale are firing on all cylinders in historical race-car drama Le Mans '66. Damon Smith strapped in for the ride

Matt Damon and Christian Bale in Le Mans '66
Damon Smith

DON'T look back in anger, move forwards with unfettered resolve to succeed where others have tried and failed.

Automotive designer Carroll Shelby and daredevil driver Ken Miles did just that in 1966 when they turbo-charged the racing division of Ford Motor Company to glory ahead of reigning constructor champion Ferrari at the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in France.

The battle royale between the two brands on the undulating asphalt of the Circuit de la Sarthe is recreated in muscular fashion by director James Mangold, working from a script penned by Jason Keller and London-born brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth.

Le Mans '66 is a crowd-pleasing drama of triumph on four wheels, anchored by terrific lead performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale, who fire on all cylinders as human trailblazers behind the roaring engines.

As Shelby, Damon threads his innate everyman charm with a mischievous streak to defy the interfering men in suits and reduce chief executive Henry Ford II to a whimpering wreck after a spin in the GT40 prototype.

Bale has the showier role as Miles. The Welsh actor achieves another extreme body transformation, dropping 70lb in weight after his Oscar-nominated turn as Dick Cheney in Vice to portray a scowling, anti-authoritarian maverick.

Initially, the film focuses on marketing executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), who persuades hard-nosed boss Ford (Tracy Letts) that the key to revitalising the ailing brand is to make Ford sexy.

"James Bond does not drive a Ford," argues Lee.

"That's because he's a degenerate!" growls Ford.

Eventually, the chief executive dispatches Lee to Italy to court Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) and sign a commercial deal to draw on Ferrari's expertise.

Discussions break down at the last minute and Ferrari insults the Americans by telling them to "go back to your big, ugly factory making big, ugly cars".

In response, Ford orders his company's racing division to build a car capable of humiliating Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans.

Stetson-wearing Carroll Shelby (Damon) accepts the seemingly impossible challenge and he approaches Ken Miles (Bale) to sit behind the wheel of the Ford GT40.

Lee's boardroom rival, fellow executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), denounces the appointment – "Ford means reliability. Ken's not a Ford man!" – but Carroll is adamant that Miles is the only driver for the job.

Le Mans '66 excels during breathlessly staged racing sequences in an era when the need for speed heightened inherent dangers of the sport.

Damon and Bale jump-start a winning on-screen partnership, leaving Bernthal and Lucas's under-nourished rivalry in their exhaust fumes, and Catriona Balfe is poorly served as Ken's doting wife – the only female character of note.

Mangold shifts sweetly through the gears, screeching through a saggy middle section before he hits thrilling top speed with the titular showdown.

LE MANS '66 (12A, 152 mins) Drama/Action/Romance. Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Catriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone. Director: James Mangold

RATING: 7.5/10

Released: November 15

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