You have to give the makers of “Race for Glory: Audi vs. Lancia” credit for their honesty in describing their “inspired by true events” drama. Not only do they offer twice in the closing credits the standard disclaimers about invoking dramatic license and inventing some characters out of whole cloth. To make sure we fully understand how fast and loose they have played with reality, they cap things off thusly: “This film cannot be considered a faithful description of facts.”
Trouble is, the film isn’t a grippingly exciting or even consistently compelling description, either. Mostly, it’s a competent yet uninspired overview of events before and during the globetrotting series of races that comprised the 1983 World Rally Championship, with the primary focus remaining affixed throughout on Cesare Fiorio, the ferociously competitive manager for Italy’s Team Lancia.
That narrative imbalance is not altogether surprising, considering that Firori is played by Riccardo Scamarcio (“John Wick: Chapter 2,” “A Haunting in Venice”), the Italian-born actor who also served as a producer and co-screenwriter for the film. He not only gives himself all of the best lines; he also commands most of the screen time. It would be less than charitable, and not completely accurate, to describe “Race for Glory” as a vanity project. But it must be noted that very little of interest happens when he is not on screen.
Indeed, the most memorable scene not involving Scamarcio occurs when another character — Roland Gumpert (Daniel Brühl), manager of Team Audi — angrily reacts to what he sees as egregious rule-bending by Fiori: “Those noodle munchers tricked us!” A funny line, though arguably not as amusing as Fiori’s snarky dismissal of a libation native to his rival’s homeland: “You know how to tell German wine from vinegar? Read the labels.”
A few more moments of comic relief such as these would have gone a long way toward revving up “Race for Glory.” The actual racing sequences are little more than pedestrian — especially when compared to the spectacular pedal-to-the-metal action in “Rush” (which also featured Brühl), “Ford v Ferrari” and, yes, “Ferrari.” Meanwhile, the off-road stretches consist mostly of a glowering Fiori brainstorming with his team about ways to improve and/or rebuild their race cars, observing the progress at rallies across the world, and (with slightly less glower and a tad more charisma) talking ace driver Walter Röhrl (Volker Bruch) into driving.
It’s more than a little annoying that the movie doesn’t spend more time with Röhrl, a character who’s allowed only to fleetingly tease us with his complexities. Happily retired, he rebuffs Fiori’s offer of employment by claiming to be “tired of winning” and being in the spotlight. The movie suggests his health may be the real issue — specifically, the increasing sensitivity of his eyes — but neither he nor Fiori ever directly discuss this. Nor does Röhrl ever fully explain why he wants to pick and choose among rally races in which he will drive — yes to Monte Carlo, no to Sweden, and so on. Fiori grudgingly accepts this seemingly prima donna behavior, until he doesn’t.
Another supporting character who deserved better: Jane McCoy (Katie Clarkson-Hill), a nutritionist who just happens to be the daughter of a driver killed in a crash two decades earlier. Despite her bad memories, she signs on when Fiori impulsively hires her to make sure all members of his team are in peak condition as they progress from one race to another. Surprisingly enough, none of the men object to her dictates about dining and bedtimes. Even more surprisingly, McCoy and Fiori maintain a respectful and purely professional relationship, with nary a spark of romantic attraction ever ignited. Nice to see at least one cliché deftly avoided.
Much like the title character in “Ferrari,” Fiori works under pressures that have less to do with speed than promotion. His Team Lancia is funded by Fiat, the Italian auto company that wants to boost car sales with racing wins. Trouble is, as the movie begins, Team Lancia hasn’t been pulling its share of the weight lately. To defeat the well-financed Team Audi, Fiori has to do what he loves best — win. Which leads to all the discussions about exhaust valves, engineering quirks and scads of other stuff that will warm the hearts of gearheads everywhere.
During all the jargon-speak, pre-rally rallying and recruitment of reluctant team members, Scamarcio’s indefatigably robust performance really does turn out to be an asset. Here and elsewhere in “Race for Glory: Audi vs. Lancia,” he more or less single-handedly propels the movie by vividly and arrestingly conveying Fiori’s obsessive attitude and winning-is-everything passion, even as Fiori remains tightly focused to the point of tunnel vision. When someone asks about the inherent danger of his sport, he replies: “Death is afraid of those who pursue it. Instead of waiting for it, we run after it. And it moves away.” At that moment, he sounds very much like a man who has totally convinced himself of something, and to hell with everybody else.