Sunday, October 6, 2013
In “Rush,” Oscar-winning helmer Ron Howard returns to the subject matter that he cut his teeth on as a film director: fast cars. In 1977, Howard made his directorial debut with the hilarious manhunt comedy “Grand Thief Auto” (1977) for executive producer Roger Corman about characters careening around in cars. Like “Grand Theft Auto,” “Rush” focuses on fast cars. Unlike “Grand Theft Auto,” where amateurs did the driving, skilled professionals are behind the wheels in “Rush.” Not only do they travel at higher speeds, but they also tread more treacherous roads. This polished but predictable saga has to do with the historic rivalry between Formula One British speedster James Hunt and Austrian automotive genius Niki Lauda. “Rush” (*** OUT OF ****) spends most of its leisurely 123 minutes on its protagonists and their clashes rather than the experience of hurling along European thoroughfares at homicidal speeds in the equivalent of bobsleds on wheels with rocket fuel . Aussie-born Chris Hemsworth of “Thor” has been cast appropriately enough as Hunt, while Spanish actor Daniel Brühl impersonates Niki Lauda. Historically, Lauda and Hunt jostled each other for the top position during the 1976 Grand Prix racing season. Ron Howard keeps the soap opera scenes with the love interests of both racers to a minimum so as to maintain momentum over the long haul. Consequently, Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara look dazzling but have little to say. Ultimately, these two competitors would come to realize that their ruthless rivalry enhanced their racetrack performance. An enduring, universal, life-truth lurks beneath all the scenic cities, challenging racetracks, and the charismatic performers in “Rush.” In the self-help handbook for mercenaries and rogues in general, “The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries” observes: “The world is richer when you turn enemies into friends, but that's not the same as you being richer.”
“Rush” unfolds in 1976 as our protagonists are poised to race at the Nurburgring track in Germany. No sooner has Howard and Morgan established this momentous setting than they flashback to show how Hunt and Lauda got their respective starts in Formula 3 racing. Hunt’s father plead with his son to become a physician. Lauda’s father had planned to take his son into the family business. Naturally, neither patriarch funds their sons’ racetrack fantasies, and our heroes go out and make things happen for themselves. Hunt finds a wealthy sponsor enamored of racing to put him behind the wheel, while Lauda buys his way onto the Ferrari team. Hunt treats Lauda with utter contempt and refers to him as a rat. Lauda points out rats possess a highly developed instinct for survival. Howard cuts back and forth between these two and creates some palatable suspense as they chase each other throughout the Grand Prix. Mind you, the suspense doesn’t so much lie in the actual driving sequences, where speeds of 170 mph is typical, but in their face-to-face confrontations. Lauda doesn’t race to defy death as Hunt does. Hunt claims woman are attracted to him because he lays his life on the line in every race. On the other hand, Lauda races to survive rather than die. He has a twenty per cent rule that governs his decision when to race. Lauda refuses to participate if the chances are greater than twenty per cent that he may perish. Hunt challenges Lauda at one point when the Austrian tries to convince his competitors to cancel the rain-swept Nurburgring track. Hunt humiliates Lauda for urging them to cancel the race. Eventually, Lauda allows himself to be brow-beaten into the race with horrendous results. The courage Lauda musters to recover so swiftly from a nearly fatal accident is inspirational and a testament to his resilience. Lauda’s car crashes during the race, and he is badly burnt. Painful skin grafts and having his lungs vacuumed out ensue, and Lauda watches in horror from his hospital bed as Hunt makes up for lost time. Hunt’s quick string of victories brings him close to surpassing Lauda. The rivalry really kicks in at this point, and life becomes stranger than fiction.
Hemsworth and Brühl resemble their real-life counterparts. If you delay your departure when the end credits roll, you’ll see the actual Hunt and Lauda. Howard slips under their collective skins with “Frost/Nixon” scenarist Peter Morgan to explore what drove them. Each racer emerges as complex and three-dimensional. Basically, they are iconoclasts who became heroic legends. Wisely, Howard and Morgan never make either one appear more sympathetic than the other. Most Hollywood movies divide and conquer when it comes to competitors. “Warrior” (2011) pitted brother against brother, and one triumphed over the other simply because he generated greater sympathy. Hemsworth has the more ostentatious role. Essentially, Hunt was either behind the wheel or in a lady’s boudoir. Comparably, Brühl creates a strong impression as Niki Lauda. The ascetic Austrian driver shunned all forms of hedonism. He constituted the polar opposite of the glib, fun-loving, skirt-chasing Hunt. Lauda was a perfectionist who constantly devised ways to lighten the weight and improve the performance of his cars. Unlike the milestone racing movies “Grand Prix” and “Le Mans,” “Rush doesn’t deal with a single race. Instead, Howard provides a tour of the European championship racing circuit. Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography gives us some vivid glimpses of Formula One racing from behind the steering wheel. Although we come to understand how dangerous driving a Formula One car can be, we are rarely given stretches where the drivers scramble to get beyond each other. “Rush” contains the equivalent of a ‘greatest hits’ montage of the various races. Spectators who don’t follow Formula One specifically or car racing in general may not know that these drivers harness themselves into the equivalent of rocket-sleds with jet fuel and roar through the countryside. While speed denotes the winner, skill keeps the driver on the course. Strong characterization, some narrative surprises, and scenic locales distinguish this interesting but sedate racing epic.