Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt
Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda
Alexandra Maria Lara as Marlene Knaus
Olivia Wilde as Suzy Miller
Pierfrancesco Favino as Clay Regazzoni
Natalie Dormer as Gemma
Tom Wlaschiha as Harald Ertl
Joséphine de La Baume as Agnes Bonnet
Patrick Baladi as John Hogan
Christian McKay as Alexander Hesketh
Cristian Solimeno as Arturo Merzario
Alistair Petrie as Stirling Moss
Jay Simpson as Clive
Colin Stinton as Teddy Mayer
Alessandro De Marco as Daniele Audetto
James Norton as Guy Edwards
Kristofer Dayne as Mario Andretti
Raffaello Degruttola as Giovanni
Directed by Ron Howard
From the first time they meet, Formula 1 racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) do not get along and over the next couple years, the very different men–Hunt from England, Lauda from Austria–find themselves feuding both on the track and off, something that the media immediately picks up on as it becomes a big story over the course of the Grand Prix season.
Sports movies can be tough to pull off, especially those based on history because once you know the story, trying to create any sort of mystery or tension goes right out the window. What might benefit “Rush,” the ambitious new film from director Ron Howard, is that it takes place within the world of Formula 1 racing in the ’70s, something that’s likely to be so far removed from the public conscious, at least among Americans, that it may offer enough surprises to circumvent the usual pitfalls of a historic sports film.
The film opens in the early ’70s, introducing England’s James Hunt, a brash and boisterous young man with a flowing mane of hair who has pulled himself up from a working class background with dreams of racing Formula 1, which is usually a rich man’s game. He enjoys the better things in life–alcohol, drugs and sex–and has already built up his “bad boy” reputation. From the first time we meet Daniel Brühl’s Niki Lauda, the man who will become Hunt’s biggest rival, we’re immediately reminded of F. Murray Abraham’s Saleri from “Amadeus” – a man so bitter about the success of his rival that he becomes obsessed with showing that he’s the better man and racer. Lauda is established as such an arrogant A-hole, unable to make friends even among his own team, that you immediately feel you can see the line drawn between right and wrong, hero and antagonist.
For much of the first act, we follow each of the racers individually as they make their way up the ranks, Lauda using his family’s money and his vast knowledge of building faster cars to get into the F1 circuit. Where things really pick up is when Hunt switches affiliations to a new sponsor to get onto the Grand Prix circuit with Lauda, and the film travel across the globe, watching Hunt and Lauda go back and forth on the race track. The second big turning point comes when Lauda, driven by his own anger, gets into horrifying accident that leaves him scarred and disfigured, which ultimately leads to a surprising “Rocky”-like finale as we watch him push himself to race again.
The fantastic, unforgettable performance by Daniel Brühl–he shouldn’t be making any plans on Oscar night if there is any justice during awards season–makes Lauda someone so arrogant and hateful, you’ll find yourself somewhat shocked when you end up rooting for him. Much of that comes from the wise decision to include scenes of him meeting his future wife, played by Alexandra Maria Lara, and showing how different he is with her. These scenes go a long way towards humanizing a character who is fairly loathsome up until that point in time.
By comparison, Hunt’s debauchery-filled life off the track is infinitely harder to relate to although Hemsworth brings the perfect amount of swagger and bravado necessary to make the character believable. The chemistry between Hemsworth and Brühl in their scenes together–quantifiably the best moments of the film–is electric, and it’s especially fun to watch Hunt throw barbs Lauda’s way, comparing his face to that of a “rat.” Although it is indeed Hemsworth’s pretty mug on the posters, by the end, “Rush” really feels like Niki’s story, and it might feel somewhat strange (in a good way) when you find yourself not rooting for Hemsworth’s James Hunt as might be expected.
Part of why Peter Morgan’s impeccable screenplay works so well is because it spends as much time off the tracks as it does impressing us with its fast-paced racing footage. It’s made abundantly clear how dangerous Formula 1 racing is, something we see time and time again as these behemoth-like vehicles speed along country roads and city streets at top miles. One presumes that there’s a lot of CG involved with recreating these races, but it’s seamless enough to not be distracting. It’s an impressively fast-paced film for Howard, the director of numerous biopics and historical pieces based in in other worlds, but the very nature of its pacing and setting harks back to “Grand Theft Auto,” his very first feature as a director.
Again, not knowing much about the story of Hunt and Lauda beforehand greatly helps one appreciate the last act, because the story is set up in a way that it literally could go either way, creating a similar amount of tension as the ending of “Apollo 13.”
The only real criticism that holds the movie back is that Olivia Wilde seems somewhat wasted and underused to the point where one wonders whether her character is even necessary to the story. She has three scenes with Hemsworth that get increasingly more dramatic with each one, but once she’s gone, you never really feel her absence has much of an effect on Hunt or the story, unlike Lauda’s own love interest.
The Bottom Line:
“Rush” is an awe-inspiring story filled with nail-biting, fast-paced racing scenes and it’s right up there with some of Ron Howard’s best films. While you might go into “Rush” thinking it’s going to be Hemsworth’s show, it’s Daniel Brühl’s unforgettable performance as his rival that has the most impact.