Director Michael Mann damages but does not total his “Ferrari.”
North Carolina has many perks: Cheerwine, Krispy Kreme, UNC basketball, the beauty of the mountains and the coast. But, for me, none of those hold a candle to witnessing adrenaline junkies racing customized chassis on the banked asphalts of Charlotte, North Wilkesboro, and Bowman Gray. Because of that, I was excited to catch the latest from director Michael Mann, who has seen success in past action hits like “Heat” and “Last of the Mohicans.”
As an adopted North Carolinian whose earliest memories consist of cheering on Dale Jr. in his No. 8 candy-red Chevrolet, it truly is a privilege to live within an hour’s distance from the best racing in the world. I mean that last statement! However, veteran director Michael Mann tried his hardest to convince me and the millions of those uninitiated or uninterested in European-style racing that it is worth our time with his latest feature “Ferrari.” Mann succeeds… but does not walk away unscathed.
“Ferrari” follows the tale of — you guessed it — Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), known affectionately as Il Commendatore, to be exact, an ex-racer turned founder and chairman of his self-named Italian sports car juggernaut. Set exclusively in 1957, 12 years after his country’s defeat in the Second World War, Il Commendatore is in the midst of preparing his company’s racing team for the Mille Miglia, Italy’s premier and most treacherous road race.
During preparations, Il Commendatore faces challenges on multiple fronts: Ferrari risks bankruptcy, the death of one of his best drivers, the lingering aftermath of his son’s passing, competition from a talented Maserati team, and — if this film was not Italian enough — hiding his longtime mistress (Shailene Woodley) and illegitimate son from his feisty wife and business partner Laura (Penélope Cruz). What a country!
Meanwhile, as Il Commendatore’s personal and professional troubles brew, he takes ambitious and popular Spanish aristocrat Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone) under his company’s wing. De Portago’s insatiable lust for danger and adventure finds him in the driver’s seat of a Ferrari 335 S, expertly designed by Il Commendatore’s loyal engineers to win the Mille Miglia and save the Ferrari brand from extinction.
It is behind the wheel where “Ferrari” finds its hook. Director Michael Mann adeptly conveys the power and thrill of Ferrari’s legion of sports cars on the silver screen. Mann, who is no stranger to effectively using automobiles in his work with “Miami Vice” and “Heat,” has an eye for speed and an ear for horsepower. Ferrari’s trademark red zips through the bends of the Italian countryside, battling mighty competitors and the elements for a shot at victory and international renown. The film’s sound design fully captures Ferrari’s ferocious roar that fills the room, transforming the viewer into an in-person spectator cheering on their favorite drivers.
Sadly, if not for the overwhelming and exhilarating force of the film’s car scenes, I may have drifted off as “Ferrari” wastes much of its over two-hour runtime on bad, boring melodrama. The movie’s script, written by the late Troy Kennedy Martin of “The Italian Job” fame, fails to convince that Il Commendatore’s tumultuous romances and other family dramas are of any importance when compared to brave men and their gorgeous machines hurriedly dashing through Italy’s uneven streets at hundreds of miles per hour. Il Commendatore’s private difficulties are not inconsequential to his business and the Mille Miglia, yet the cast’s subpar, at times over-the-top dramatic performances take up far too much screen time, making the viewer itch for more automobile action.
While overindulging in Il Commendatore’s domestic squabbles, “Ferrari” brushes over the lives of the great racers behind the wheel: Taruffi, von Trips, Gendebien, and especially de Portago. Remember those old Dos Equis commercials featuring “The Most Interesting Man in the World” where some devilishly handsome, vaguely foreign playboy wins millions in blackjack, does a barrel roll in an airplane, and is flanked by beautiful models? De Portago is the closest anyone has ever come to being that in real life. He jockeyed in steeplechases, ran bobsleighs at the Winter Olympics, and dated Bond Girls. Reducing his personal life to a minute-long bedroom romp with his then-girlfriend, the actress Linda Christian (Sarah Gadon), is a baffling waste of potential. Fortunately, Gabriel Leone’s performance as the great Spanish bachelor captures his essence and spirit despite the lack of story.
Il Commendatore and de Portago’s primary rival, Maserati, are also not given their due. While immediately introduced as Ferrari’s opponents, the film refuses to divulge on their antagonistic history, preventing any deep rivalry between the two companies from being established. While the film is entitled “Ferrari” instead of “Ferrari vs. Maserati” in the vein of James Mangold’s brilliant “Ford vs. Ferrari” from 2019, Mann’s refusal to elaborate does no favors for the plot.
Adam Driver’s lead performance as Il Commendatore is appropriate in capturing an intimidating savant of the speedway, yet is severely handicapped by a bad Italian accent. Driver is not the sole actor whose elocution is at fault, as nearly all performers, including Spaniard Penélope Cruz, deliver Italian-fused dialogue as if they were recording lines for the latest disaster to emerge from the Super Mario Bros. cinematic universe. I would understand if the Italian Republic banned this film from its theaters for causing “grave offense to the Italian people, nation, and culture,” or something along those lines.
Speaking of video games, the film’s CGI needs much-required polishing, coming off as unfinished at best and half-assed at worst. If I want to watch a beautiful 50s Ferrari crash, flip, explode, and run over innocent bystanders, I want it to look like the real McCoy and not from a PlayStation 3 game.
Shortcomings befall “Ferrari,” yet do not kill it. What could and should have been a full exploration of the racer’s mindset and addiction to danger and glory is unnecessarily hampered by an uninteresting melodrama and bad creative decisions that reduce the film’s momentum.
While Mann bungles the job on Ferrari the Man, he succeeds with flying colors on Ferrari the Motor. Ignoring the mediocre CGI, Ferrari is a car movie that sells its audience on its product: the thrill and joy of racing. It’s loud, dangerous, and deadly — a universal language that stock car lovers from North Carolina and Formula One fanatics from Europe can decipher. “Ferrari” may drive itself over the cliff, but it only emerges with some dents and scrapes, not enough damage to force the car to retire and leave the race unfinished.
Rating: Three bruised Ferraris that will surely scare off any insurance company.