"Rush" is exactly that
Other than "Apollo 13" and a couple of strange outliers (huh, I suppose he did direct "The Dilemma," a movie forgotten by time before it even came out), Ron Howard is a master of making good, middlebrow films that I have no interest in ever watching again.
Don't get me wrong; he makes good movies (and, again, in the case of "Apollo 13" and arguably "A Beautiful Mind," great movies). The performances are almost always strong. They're shot well, and there's nothing appalling or particularly audience-insulting about them. I wouldn't not recommend them; I just wouldn't go out of my way to recommend them either, mainly due to getting pushed back to the dark, poorly dusted corners of my memory.
Movies like "Frost/Nixon" and "Cinderella Man," they're just so damn … respectable. I appreciate the solid craftsmanship and the modestly compelling stories they tell, but they're not necessarily entertaining or enjoyable. They're the vegetables of the film world: Yeah, they're technically good for me, but where's the flavor?
Flavor, thy name is "Thor In a Race Car" "Rush."
Howard's latest follows a duo of '70s Formula One drivers, Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl from "Inglourious Basterds" and the upcoming Julian Assange drama "The Fifth Estate"). Hunt is a cocky showboat, party boy and womanizer with the racing skills to back it up. Unfortunately, his wild tabloid-happy lifestyle – complete with a quickie marriage to model/socialite Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) – makes sponsors nervous and threatens to overshadow his impressive on-track chops.
Lauda is the complete opposite, a supremely focused, no frills race car driver whose entire life is dedicated to the science of the sport. He even uses his automotive expertise to score his sweet, supportive wife (Alexandra Maria Lara).
The only thing the frosty technician and the slick playboy have in common are their monstrous egos, which clash almost instantly at their first race down in Formula Three. Hunt wins that particular fight, but when the rivals finally make their way to F1, Lauda dominates the field while Hunt struggles to make even a dent in the standings.
Their battle reaches its climax during the 1976 season, when a horrible wreck on a perilously rainy course puts defending champion Lauda in the hospital with a burned face and poisoned lungs. In his rival's absence, Hunt begins to creep up the standings and threaten Lauda's once seemingly clinched second title.
Howard appears to have found inspiration along the winding F1 tracks, as his usual feel-good historical stuffiness has been refreshingly replaced with a pulsing newfound energy. The movie flies (I refuse to say "races") forward at a pleasantly swift pace while still allowing time for Hemsworth and Brühl to make an impact and build compelling characters whose rivalry eventually morphs into something more like mutual appreciation. They grow to see in each other what they personally lack, in addition to merely their impressive prowess behind the wheel.
They could've been easy one-note foils, but Hemsworth, Brühl and scribe Peter Morgan (Howard's screenwriter on "Frost/Nixon") find the real, complicated people in the professional daredevils. That goes especially for Brühl, who keeps his character's sharpened, calculated – and borderline pompous – edge while showing the brittle humanity underneath.
For all of their personal dramas and fireworks, "Rush" fittingly roars to life when the characters put on their helmets and hit the road. The races are sharply edited, capturing the cars' thrilling ferocity and speed. The engines click, churn and thunder. The racers shift with furious precision.
Howard tucks the audience into the race with the help of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who you likely know from "Slumdog Millionaire" and likely don't know from "Dredd"), whose work here is gorgeous. Some colors and details – an intimidating sky mixed with sun and thunderous clouds, curtains of rain – pop and stick in the mind. Others are a dreamy blur. The result is a sense of misty period nostalgia (without the usual heavy hand) combined with what I imagine being in a Formula One car feels like, dangerously flying at mind-boggling speeds while my brain and eyes try to make sense of the, well, rush (excuse me the one pun please).
When the story isn't racing, Howard does struggle a bit to keep the propulsive momentum. After all, the sports movie story itself isn't exactly a revelation at its core, and while it's a borderline impossible task even with Brühl and Hemsworth doing impressive work, Morgan's dialogue never quite revs to life the way the driving sequences do.
That's especially glaring when the script occasionally gets a good bit on-the-nose. A final post-rivalry conversation between Lauda and Hunt, for example, basically lays the characters' motivations and arcs right out there for anyone who went the bathroom during the trailers, got lost for two hours trying to find the right theatre and just got back.
Still, Howard's work with "Rush" is something to applaud. He's made a good movie that actually feels good to watch. The races are intense and exhilarating, not only because of the inherent thrill of flimsy cars going fast but because you actually care about who is piloting them. I even found myself stuck on who to root for in the big final showdown. There's no wrong answer, which tells me "Rush" did it right.
Theaters and showtimes for Rush
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