Ron Howard directed Rush, so it’s safe to say that the new movie about Formula One racing in the 1970s features the same speeding vehicles and spectacular crashes you might expect from the man who gave us Grand Theft Auto in 1977. Thankfully, the Oscar winner has occupied those dangerously fast vehicles with fascinating, dynamic people.
In re-creating the rivalry between British racer James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, Thor) and his Austrian nemesis Niki Lauda (German actor Daniel Bruhl), Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen and Howard’s Frost/ Nixon) have fashioned a tale that will engross you even if the only Formula One driver you can name is Mario Andretti.
Initially, the story seems to revolve around two adrenaline junkies who come from prosperous families and used their connections to buy their way out of racing’s minor leagues and into the spotlight. Thankfully, for the film, the relationship is far more complicated and intriguing. Lauda’s father is so disgusted that he forgoes the family trade (paper manufacturing) for life on the racing circuit that he cuts him off. So Lauda takes out a loan to buy his way onto a team. If he doesn’t win, he’s broke.
Flirtation with death is what motivates Hunt. Being behind the wheel of what amounts to a rolling metal coffin ironically makes him feel more alive. Not surprisingly, he also enjoys chemical recreation and romancing any woman who’s available. Because he’s handsome and suave, the number of receptive ladies is enormous. When Hunt’s fashion model wife (Olivia Wilde, sporting a surprisingly convincing British drawl) dumps him for playboy actor Richard Burton, he effortlessly spins it for reporters, making being cuckolded seem a badge of honor.
Lauda, on the other hand, is charmless. You suspect that even if English were his first language, his remarks to teammates and peers would sound curt and abrasive. Hunt isn’t far off when he says the short, unkempt racer looks like a rat.
He also proves to be the husband that Hunt could never hope to be. He’s loving and faithful, even if he has no clue how to sweet talk his betrothed (Alexandra Maria Lara). Whereas Hunt wins by embracing risk at every turn, Lauda minimizes uncertainty and has a remarkable ability for devising ways to legally maximize a car’s performance. The Austrian makes few friends on the circuit, and his victories are often due to the fact that he’s smarter than his opponents.
As played by Bruhl, Lauda eventually becomes the more likable of the two. All of us have felt like clumsy misfits at some point in our lives, so it gradually becomes easier to identify with Lauda. Bruhl goes through some remarkable physical readjustments during the story, but he never makes the caustic Lauda repellent. There’s a warm and passionate heart beating behind that unappealing facade.
Similarly, Hemsworth finds a variety of ways to see beyond Hunt’s unflappable exterior. He may crave danger, but he’s still alive because he’s acutely aware of how lethal his sport is. When he’s out of TV camera range, Hunt behaves quite differently.
Morgan is an old hand at writing bio-pics that don’t play like bio-pics. He finds ways to make real events seem not so inevitable, making viewers feel the same uncertainty about races that Hunt and Lauda did. Their mutual admiration and disgust take surprising turns, so viewers rarely feel as if they’re ahead of the story.
If Howard relies on predictable “Me Decade” tunes to fill out his soundtrack, he does manage to stage the races expertly and nails the look of the era. It’s such a treat to see a movie with terrific eye candy that doesn’t shortchange the characters. It’s gratifying to know there’s something under the hood of this slick vehicle.
Rush 89 Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara Director: Ron Howard Rating: R, for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use Running time: 123 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 09/27/2013
Print Headline: Finish line payoff