Directed by Ron Howard
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: