Dir: Adam McKay. US. 2006. 108mins.

Even though TalladegaNights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby intermittentlyspins its wheels, crowd-pleaser runs well enough to reach the finish line.Playing to his strengths, star/co-writer/executive producer Will Ferrell reapsmany good comic moments early on in Adam Mckay'sfeature to compensate for a sluggish second half.

Set in the world of NASCARracing, a sport enjoying tremendous popularity growth in the US, thePG-13-rated Talladega Nights walks the fine line of appealing to fanswhile also being accessible enough to neophytes. Opening in the States on Aug4, the film should satisfy Ferrell's large male base and likely end up takingthe $85m total his summer 2004 film Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundycollected, although it may prove harder to reach the triple digits enjoyed byfellow Frat Packers Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson with summer hits like Dodgeball or Wedding Crashers.

As this Sony comedy expandsinto international markets throughout the end of the year, it will face twomajor obstacles: the rest of the planet's disinterest in NASCAR and Ferrell'slesser overseas drawing power (both Anchorman and 2005's Kicking AndScreaming were heavily weighted towards home takings); marketing in the UKand elsewhere would be wise to play up the strong performance from Sacha Baron Cohen as Ferrell's chief rival. DVD businessshould be brisk, as there undoubtedly will be a racier unrated version targetedto a more adult audience.

Hotshot driver Ricky(Ferrell) is NASCAR's most popular and successful racer, earning lucrativeendorsement deals and basking in the adulation of all those around him. Butthen French driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen)enters the field, replacing Ricky in the winner's circle and sending him into adownward spiral of self-doubt and disgrace.

On many levels, TalladegaNights is reminiscent of Anchorman. Both films were directed by AdamMcKay, both were written by McKay and Ferrell, and both feature Ferrell playinga pompous big shot cut down to size who ultimately finds redemption. If thosecomparisons aren't enough, each project lovingly satirises its milieu (with Talladega,it's car racing; with Anchorman, it's cheesylocal newscasts) while relying on over-the-top characterisations andhit-and-miss improvised humour for its laughs.

With a loose, generousspirit, McKay and Ferrell improve on their earlier effort: Talladega Nightshas funnier set pieces as well as better throwaway gags than their spottierprevious collaboration. Granted, McKay and Ferrell still essentially makesketch-comedy movies - random bits of hilarity strung together on a fairly thinstoryline - but at least they've improved their quantity of good material,especially during Ricky's ascension to NASCAR greatness where Ferrell's skillat portraying buffoonish egomaniacs serves him well.

But if Ferrell sometimesseemed to hog the spotlight in Anchorman, here his supporting cast feels moreinvolved. As Ricky's best friend, John C Reilly (better known for his dramaticperformances) shows no difficulty handling the dopey-sidekick role, and the twomen work well off one another.

But it's Baron Cohen - to beseen later this year in Borat - who gives thefilm acceleration. As with successful James Bond films, good comedies oftenneed a juicy villain to elevate the proceedings, and the Ali G star isterrific playing a mockingly stereotypical French snob who representseverything the flag-waving, beer-drinking Ricky detests. As a testament toBaron Cohen's importance to Talladega Nights, the film's second-half dipcan be partly blamed on his disappearance from the plot as Ricky withdraws fromthe limelight to regain his confidence before the big third-act race.

With a budget reportedlyaround $85m - a high price tag for a comedy - Talladega Nights has spentits money wisely on startlingly exhilarating NASCAR race sequences. While onewould reasonably expect a certain amount of laughs from a Will Ferrell vehicle,the high-energy stunt work is a great surprise, adding unexpected excitementand tension to an otherwise proficient studio comedy.

Production companies
Columbia Pictures
Relativity Media
Apatow Company
Mosaic Media Group

US distribution
Columbia Pictures

International distribution
Sony Pictures Releasing International

Executive producers
Will Ferrell
Adam McKay
David Householter
Ryan Kavanaugh
Richard Glover
Sarah Nettinga

Jimmy Miller
Judd Apatow

Will Ferrell
Adam McKay

Oliver Wood

Brent White

Production design
Clayton R Hartley

Alex Wurman

Main cast
Will Ferrell
John C Reilly
Sacha Baron Cohen
Gary Cole
Michael Clarke Duncan
Leslie Bibb
Jane Lynch
Amy Adams