For the past decade, I’ve approached Ron Howard‘s films with a mix of trepidation and outright dread. Apollo 13 is an amazing piece of filmmaking, but from there, he’s seemed content to play it safe to the point of inertia. A Beautiful Mind may be daring in its direction, but its story is worthy of a TV movie. Considering the horrors of the Robert Langdon movies, the unwatchable Oscar-bait Cinderella Man, and the low-ball The Dilemma, my skepticism towards his latest picture, Rush, was more than warranted. Thankfully, Howard seems to be alive again as he goes full throttle on taking the viewer inside the world of Formula 1 racing. More importantly, he has a worthwhile story at the center. While Howard still feels the need to spoon-feed the themes, the strong performances and intensity of the racing scenes make his latest picture a ride worth taking.
The story centers on the rivalry between Formula 1 racers Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). Both men come from privileged backgrounds, and these cushy comforts cause them to rebel and test their mettle in the dangerous world of F1 racing. Their beginnings also coincide as they both push to make the leap from Formula 3 racing up to F1 through their financial power rather than competing through the ranks. But once at the F1 level, their rivalry intensifies due in part to their drastically different personalities—the pragmatic, calculating Lauda could not be further from the adrenaline-fueled, arrogant playboy Hunt. However, as their rivalry heats up, it begins to bring out their best and worst qualities.
Since Lauda and Hunt don’t start competing in earnest until they’re in F1, the movie is a bit slow to start because it’s not all that interesting to see guys use financial maneuvers instead of showing their skill behind the wheel. Thankfully, the pacing allows Brühl and Hemsworth to bring some texture to their characters if not shading. The film is about a clash of clearly defined personalities, and the uptight, austere Lauda makes a good foil for the freewheeling Hunt. Personally, I found Lauda a bit more compelling since he has a direct passion for racing while Hunt is looking for thrills, and F1 just happens to be a way he can get them. “It’s a coffin on top of a bomb,” Hunt tells his future wife, Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) He still cares about the art of racing (there’s a great scene where he’s “practicing” by visualizing each turn and moving his feet and arms in response), but the sharp, exacting Lauda is a bit funnier in his inability to have fun.
Once the racing begins, Howard demonstrates the technical attention to detail that helped make Apollo 13 so wonderful. It’s difficult to find new ways to shoot racing, but cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gets some amazing shots, and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill edit them together to create an exhilarating experience on the track. Furthermore, Howard slowly ramps up the intensity of each race, so we’re on the edge of our seats by the time Lauda and Hunt are swerving around on a rain-drenched track. The director has made us buy into their rivalry and the sport to where we don’t think it’s silly for them to risk their lives over a trophy. It makes perfect sense.
It’s crucial that we care about the men behind the wheel, and all of the characters besides Lauda and Hunt end up being window dressing. Wilde is absolutely wasted in her brief role, and while that character does illustrate Hunt’s personality, it’s strange to cast a recognizable face for such a minor part. The expert piece of casting is Brühl. He’s still a stranger to most audiences even though he had a supporting role in Inglourious Basterds. In a leading part, Brühl’s is a scene stealer. Hemsworth is good, but Hunt is almost a variation on Thor. It’s a swaggering, entitled guy who’s out to win glory but learns to grow up. Meanwhile, Brühl successfully navigates his way through a character who’s always serious, but sometimes that seriousness can get some big deadpan laughs.
The two actors are at their best when sharing the screen. Together, their characters’ rivalry truly comes alive rather than just bitching behind each other’s back. But Howard falters by not trusting his audience to glean the importance of their rivalry and rivalries in general. Rush is not a complex film, and the message is readily apparent, but Howard still feels the need to have his characters spell it out. It reduces the character-driven narrative to a showcase of fast cars and a lesson.
Even when Rush reaches this low, it’s easily Howard’s best film in years. There’s a fire to the picture that’s been absent from his work for far too long. Howard’s passion for the story comes alive through the devotion of his lead actors and the intensity of the racing scenes. There’s no need to spell out why having a rival is different than having an enemy. The definition becomes more than clear in the conflict between Lauda and Hunt. Thankfully, Rush never gets too hung up on imparting lessons to its audience. The primary focus is putting two intriguing figures inside a couple of coffin-bombs, and letting us feel the heat and respect the speed.