Exhilarating "Rush" Marks Career High For Ron Howard

Ron Howard last left us with 2011’s “The Dilemma,” the tonally berserk Vince Vaughn-Kevin James dramedy that left many viewers scratching their heads. But its puzzlement wasn’t far-reaching – most moviegoers ignored the film all together. “Rush,” the true story of dueling Formula One racers in the mid-70s, is an especially strange follow-up to something as lightweight as “The Dilemma,” but a very welcome one. Nearly as narratively compelling as it is viscerally thrilling, “Rush” is Howard’s most efficient film since “Apollo 13,” and there’s a case to be made that it’s his finest work, period.

Chris Hemsworth (“The Avengers”) as James Hunt – the brash, hard-living, thrill-seeking Englishman – is likely to be the main draw among the cast. It’s with good reason, too, as the actor is quickly becoming a brand name among action fans (a second “Thor” film is imminent). But it’s Daniel Brühl (“Inglourious Basterds”) as Niki Lauda – the prickly, intellectual Austrian driver that serves as Hunt’s primary roadblock to superstardom – that captivates here, acting as the perfect foil to Hemsworth’s blustery playboy.

The film begins at the starting line of the 1976 German Grand Prix, a vitally important race in the point standings, before backtracking to the origins of both men’s careers. The commonalities between Hunt and Lauda – neither driver’s family approves of their son’s profession – only bolster the seedlings of their mutual disdain. As the two men learn to detest each other, each reflecting the other’s weaknesses, we get small but important glimpses into their personalities, all of which allow Hemsworth and Brühl to build the necessary foundation for what’s to come.

Screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) shortchanges the early years of his dual protagonists, all too swiftly skipping ahead to the 1976 season, but he makes the best of his all-too-brief set-up, expertly hammering down the minutiae of each character. Lauda is a mechanical genius – logical to a fault with the kind crippling of social ineptitude that frequently accompanies braininess – but he’s steely-eyed and absolutely ice-in-his-veins fearless. His staccato speech patterns only underscore his wry sense of humor, and Morgan’s dialogue is perfectly suited to Brühl’s intense approach to the character.

Hunt, on the other hand, is a freewheeling womanizer on the surface, but he vomits before each race and suffers enormous trouble communicating with women, as evidenced by his first marriage to Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), a sultry British fashion model. Replete with an entourage – including Alexander Hesketh (Christian McKay), head of Hesketh racing – Hunt surrounds himself with distractions, from women to substances, as a balm to soothe the stinging loneliness that’s always bubbling beneath the surface. The character’s secret twitchiness is never far from sight, and Hemsworth artfully walks the line between cockiness and inner ruin. Although Hunt is inherently the less interesting of the two main players, Hemsworth does an admirable job with his arc – or lack thereof.

“Rush” really takes off once it catches up to itself at the hour mark, returning to the German Grand Prix starting line and beginning a remarkably dramatic chain of events that almost seems too gripping to be true. It’s here that Lauda’s relationship with his wife, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), breaks through as the heartbeat of the picture, and Brühl does some fantastic physical acting that’s likely to draw attention come awards season. He’s immense in the role, forcing the audience into his corner no matter how unlikable he is at times.

Ron Howard’s direction of his actors is most impressive, but his decision to hire cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Dredd”) was the ace up his sleeve. The picture looks tremendous, complete with Mantle’s typically oversaturated (but not artificially so) coloring, an effect that provides a heightened look that harmonizes beautifully with the material. Much of the camera work, particularly during the race scenes, adds a level of vibrancy that other filmmakers couldn’t dream of, including Ron Howard circa “The Dilemma.” Combined with seamless CGI, top of the line art design, and on-point editing, Mantle’s exceptional photography makes this Howard’s most viscerally appealing film yet – by a significant margin.

“Rush” will undoubtedly play very well with those familiar with the Hunt-Lauda rivalry, as its attention to detail is second to none, but it might play even better with those blind to the film’s dramatic twists and turns. That the resulting legacy of Hunt and Lauda is so eloquently narrated by Brühl at the film’s conclusion – instead of the usual archived photos and text – is only one of many good decisions on display here (and, thankfully, it rescues the unusually clunky scene that precedes it).

More than anything else, “Rush” captures the spirit of competition so vividly that I was frequently caught off guard. When a newly married Lauda says to his wife, “Happiness is the enemy,” it wonderfully summarizes the inherent inner conflict of any great athlete or artist. The idea that pain breeds greatness is a major theme here – something Lauda goes on to experience in a big way – but like the concept itself, the film’s take on it isn’t exactly predictable.

As rock-solid as the rest of the picture is, it’s the handful of poignant moments that seal the deal. It’s rare to see a biopic that feels so true to its subjects, fluctuating effortlessly between passion and dispassion. At times, you can feel the presence of these characters’ ghosts on screen – the real people that did all of these amazing things. Moments in time, captured on film. And that’s the ultimate signpost of a successful biopic. Highly recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: September 20, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Peter Morgan
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use)