Synopsis: A biography of Formula 1 champion driver Niki Lauda and the 1976 crash that almost claimed his life. Mere weeks after the accident, he got behind the wheel to challenge his rival, James Hunt.
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer
Director: Ron Howard
Running Length: 120 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: The most exciting thing about Rush is not the impeccably staged Formula 1 racing sequences, or seeing star Chris Hemsworth turn in a strong performance that doesn’t require a superhero costume, or finding a fresh new star on the rise. No, while Rush has all of the above mentioned they are mere bonus points when compared to how the film represents a return to fine form for director Ron Howard.
After a small misstep with middling The Dilemma and turning in too literal adaptations of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons the director has returned to the kind of filmmaking that put him on the map in the first place. Rush is very much in league with Howard’s work on Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, capturing a time and place that zoom off the screen – a period drama that doesn’t feel stuck in the past.
I didn’t have much knowledge of the world of Formula 1 racing before the movie and I don’t have a much more after – but the more swerves around being an introduction to the sport in favor of illustrating the rivalry of two very different men with the same competitive spirit.
Australian Hemsworth (The Cabin in the Woods, Snow White & The Huntsman, Marvel’s The Avengers) plays Brit racer James Hunt with a frat boys wink and a playboy’s good looks. When we first meet him he’s as reckless off the track as he is on…clearly not taking the sport as seriously as his colleagues would like. He talks a big game and usually delivers…until he meets his match in the form of Austrian Niki Lauda (Spanish star Daniel Brühl).
Lauda may not have Hunt’s good looks or affable charm but what he lacks in that department he more than makes up with an understanding of racing and what it takes to win. He’s not shy about speaking his mind no matter who he offends…his only focus is winning and he’ll drive over anyone that gets in his way. That doesn’t sit too well with Hunt and the men find themselves at odds at every turn.
The first half of the film is a well staged introduction to the two men as they come into their own in the racing world of the late 70’s. On an international stage with races all over the world we follow Hunt and Lauda as they go through the paces of their races and see how they are always looking in their mirrors to see what race position they’re in. Howard keeps the races moving ever forward, sometimes showing the full race and other times showing just the end stats.
The second half of the film focuses on the effects after a devastating accident and shows how the course of both Lauda and Hunt’s careers takes a turn that will test the resolve and willpower of the two men. Brühl and Hemsworth are both strong in their interpretations of these racers with Brühl acting as a semi-narrator of the piece. We get the chance to peel back some of the layers and gain some insight into what makes these men tick…what drives them to put their lives at risk race after race.
Howard has enlisted cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle, a frequent collaborator with Danny Boyle (he won an Oscar for his work on Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire). Also lensing Boyle’s recent Trance, Mantle brings a hyper kinetic energy to the film most notably in well filmed racing sequences that never lose the audience who can sometimes be forgotten by filmmakers just interested in showboating their technique. His shots are clever, clear, and spot on the right choice for this type of film.
Aside from Brühl and Hemsworth, the film is notable for introducing Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara to US audiences. Howard really made a find here because this actress is a fascinating addition to the already strong cast. Though her part is mostly relegated to the supportive wife of Niki, Lara finds some special moments in the script from Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan to make her own – it’s a performance that really stuck with me and here’s hoping we see more of her soon.
Into every movie a little rain must fall and in the performance category the two weak leaks are a badly miscast Olivia Wilde (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, People Like Us). One of the only Americans in the cast, she dons not only a blonde wig but a poor British accent to play Suzy Miller, wife of James Hunt. Though her first scene hints at a fiery performance to come, there’s not enough meat from the script or from Wilde to make much of an impression which is disappointing because Wilde is a good actress but her choices lately haven’t landed like they should. Same goes from Christian McKay as the owner of Hunt’s racing team. Sporting a pudgy fat suit (I hope it was a fat suit) and a foppish accent straight from a Benny Hill sketch, McKay seems to have walked in from the aforementioned Benny Hill skit and forgot he was in a drama.
Those two performances aside, Howard fills the other characters and extras with actors that look like they really are from the late 70’s thanks to costume designer Julian Day’s restrained 70’s attire. The music from Hans Zimmer is typically solid and the overall production design from Mark Digby allows the audience to become enveloped with the era with rolling their eyes at yet another pair of flowered bell-bottoms.
Rush is a strong entry for Howard (The Paper, Backdraft, Parenthood, Splash, Gung Ho, Far and Away) and a welcome return of a director that I’ve missed in the last few years because Howard is a great storyteller and a strong filmmaker. Wisely being released after the big boom of summer blockbusters, Rush has the potential to be a sleeper hit for the fall and rightfully so. It’s a skillfully made biopic that should have audiences on the edge of their seats.