Ron Howard’s European race car drama is fast but only slightly furious
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde
Over the years former child actor Ron Howard has proven himself a workmanlike, mainstream director—like Steven Spielberg minus the awe-inspiring sense of wonder. He’s made a lot of good movies, but never a truly great one. He’s adept at comedy (Night Shift, Splash, Gung Ho) but seems more interested in chasing after Oscar-baiting dramas. The thing that’s holding him back may be that Howard is less interested in characters and plots and more interested in job descriptions. It’s true. In the past he’s thoroughly explored professions like firefighting (Backdraft), newspaper reporting (The Paper), astronauting (Apollo 13) and boxing (Cinderella Man). And while those explorations all resulted in decent films, you’d be hard-pressed to recall what they’re about, exactly—other than the career at hand. Howard’s latest, Rush, follows the pattern. If you’re curious about what driving a Formula 1 race car for a living is like, then Rush will lay it out for you quite handily. If you want something deeper, well, sorry.
Following the preview trailers, but before the opening credits, Rush sneaks in a full-fledged commercial for Formula 1 racing on NBC Sports Network. Unfortunately that only serves to remind viewers that Americans care so little about Formula 1 racing it airs stateside on something called NBCSN. This is a major speed bump. Rush sincerely wants to be the Days of Thunder of Formula 1 racing. But stock car racing is the only kind Americans care even slightly about. And it’s a very specific demographic that bothers watching that. To the majority of Americans, Formula 1 racing is something a bunch of snotty, rich Europeans engage in. And Rush does little to alleviate that impression.
The film is based on the true-life story of daredevil Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and intense Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), who formed a vivid rivalry in the early-to-mid ’70s. Howard and his crack behind-the-camera crew work hard to anchor the film in time. The look and feel—from the soundtrack right down to the grainy cinematography—is period accurate. But for the most part, the film is only dwelling on surface details. Fast cars and hot girls (Olivia Wilde and Natalie Dormer in the latter category) are displayed in abundance.
Hemsworth (hot off Thor) is appropriately cast as the candle-burning, devil-may-care playboy who’s in it for the attention. Brühl (Inglourious Basterds, The Bourne Ultimatum, Good Bye Lenin!) does an exemplary job of inhabiting the role of Lauda, a tightlipped, laser-focussed gearhead. The film shifts back and forth between the two, examining both sides of their long-standing, on-the-track feud. The problem is they’re both a couple of reckless jerks. Hunt is a narcissistic sensualist. Lauda is an arrogant perfectionist. And it’s not until a late-in-the-game twist that the heart of the Hunt-Lauda rivalry really comes into focus. In the end, of course, it’s all about the job. What kind of person would crave a career in which 20 percent of the people involved are likely to end up dead by year’s end? Rush asks and answers the question, presenting us with two men who dice with death on a daily basis, ultimately for two very different reasons. If only the fact-based script by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) had spent more time inside its characters’ heads and less time crafting montage sequences filled with Ferraris, fashion models and David Bowie tunes. We get that Hunt and Lauda only really feel alive when they’re cheating death. But we’re not exactly sure why.
Rush, like just about all of Howard’s films, is a highly professional product. It looks slick as hell—particularly the film’s many tension-filled racing sequences. Howard’s first directing effort was the 1977 drive-in movie Grand Theft Auto. So the guy clearly knows his way around cars. The actors are very well-cast. And the script does an admirable job of balancing sports movie spectacle with human drama. If only it went that extra mile. A little less interest in the commercial aspects of pop filmmaking and a little more attention to what’s really driving its two characters, and Rush could have been Howard’s first great movie. Instead, it’s just another good effort, second-place showing.