With Daniel Brühl, Chris Hemsworth, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino. Written by Peter Morgan. Directed by Ron Howard. Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use. 123 minutes.
Ron Howard is a great American director, although you wouldn’t know it from how he’s treated by critics. Yes, the former “Opie” and “Richie Cunningham” has his share of clunkers and lightweight fare (his alleged comedy “The Dilemma” was one of the very worst films of 2011.) Yet the man whose credits include “Cocoon,” “Frost/Nixon,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Parenthood” and “Apollo 13” should be treated at least as well as some of the artistes whose unwatchable movies get routinely praised.
RUSH is Howard at the top of his game, and will likely impress viewers who don’t have the slightest interest in (or knowledge of) Formula One racing. When you think about it, auto racing is a very silly sport. It involves people driving around and around a course at high speeds in vehicles created for no other purpose than to allow a single racer to go very, very fast. Howard (and screenwriter Peter Morgan) don’t waste time trying to convince us this is important. What they succeed in doing is showing how it is important to some people––just as we might have our own arcane interests––and takes it from there.
The movie focuses on what is apparently a legendary rivalry from the 1975-76 season. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) lives for speed. When he’s not driving fast he’s partying hard and racing through his life. He wants to be recognized as the best because he believes he is the best. Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is more serious. He also lives for speed, but goes at it scientifically and methodically. He wants to be recognized as the best because he believes no one else is working as hard at every facet of the process as he is.
It’s inevitable that these two will clash, and they quickly become the two to watch on the international racing circuit as one, then the other, comes out on top. If these names are meaningless to you––as they will no doubt be to many if not most viewers––then you won’t know how their competition plays out. This review is not going to tell you. Suffice to say, the unexpected happens and both men are continually challenged. They learn––as one of them says late in the film––that sometimes we are luckiest not in our friends but in our rivals. The two men come to respect each other and use their rivalry to spur themselves on to be the best they can.
As Hunt, Hemsworth has a career-making role. Sure, he was the lead in “Thor,” and repeats the role in “The Avengers” and the upcoming “Thor: The Dark World,” but let’s face it: he was just beefcake. Here he has to act, and you can be sure that all over Hollywood agents and producers and directors are taking a fresh look at the Australian. Sure “Thor” is great at building up his star power, but “Rush” shows he can act. Daniel Brühl is already an accomplished German actor who has had some Hollywood roles (“Inglorious Basterds,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) but his complex and sensitive performance as the perfectionist Lauda should put him on the map. If you’re already taken with him, then track down his marvelous 2003 comedy “Goodbye Lenin.”
Formula One racing is not a women’s sport, and so the women in the film are mostly eye candy, except for the principal actresses. Olivia Wilde has a solid turn as the woman Hunt woos when it’s deemed he needs to appear more stable, although he proves himself unworthy of holding onto her. Alexandra Maria Lara is strong as Lauda’s wife, although this may not be the breakout role the Romanian-born German actress might have wanted. She’s certainly someone worth watching in the future.
“Rush” is about auto racing and can be appreciated as a key chapter in the history of the sport, but it’s much more interesting in showing how two men compete with each other without losing their souls in the process. What ultimate lesson might be learned from the story is hinted at in the movie, but Howard is too accomplished a filmmaker to hand us a pat moral. He leaves it to us to decide what it all means.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.