In Rush director Ron Howard chronicles the true life story of Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) whose not-so-friendly race competitions culminated in one of the most exciting sports rivalries of the 1970s. Based on the years between 1970 and 1976, Rush juxtaposes the two drivers as they rise from up-and-coming Formula Three racers into full-fledged Formula One celebrities. Hunt is charming but impulsive (not to mention a drinker and womanizer), whose off-track life is no less intense than the time he spends defying death behind the racing wheel. Conversely, Lauda is disciplined but cold-hearted (and a master at reengineering Formula One cars), whose primary focus in life is winning – frequently at the expense of friends and personal companions.
After Lauda strikes a deal that enables him to jump from Formula Three to Formula One, Hunt and his Hesketh Racing benefactors follow suit and secure a spot in the 1973 F1 circuit – setting the stage for a fierce feud between the two racers. However, as the two men attempt to adjust to the pressures of championship racing, their drive (along with individual strengths and liabilities) leads to havoc in their lives and relationships – while pushing each other to be better, faster, and more dangerous on the track.
Rush could have been watered down to secure a PG-13 rating but Howard made a bold choice in showcasing the real-life danger of Formula One racing (as an R-Rated picture) – which, as the film points out, was responsible for (on average) two fatalities per year back in the 1970s. This isn’t to say that Rush is gratuitous in its displays of on-track carnage (not to mention Hunt’s numerous sexual encounters) but the film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the hazards of racing and the emotional effect the perils have on drivers. While the movie does little to separate itself from a very standard biopic format, with plenty of familiar ups and downs along the way (as well as some very on-the-nose commentary regarding competition and friendship), Howard’s commitment to the subject at hand, as well as skill at capturing the excitement, beauty, and danger of the Formula One sport itself, helps elevate Rush above similar true life sport story adaptations.
Some die-hard racings fans who were hoping to see elaborate recreations of key Hunt/Lauda skirmishes might be slightly disappointed to discover that the majority of Rush is spent off the track. This isn’t to say that the film fails to include a satisfying amount of racing action – as some genuinely breathtaking moments are choreographed for the big screen with exciting visual flair (while mixing in archive broadcast TV footage to help keep the scenes grounded).
Instead, Rush spends most of its runtime juxtaposing the numerous differences between the two legendary drivers - constantly reinforcing that Hunt is an impulsive force of nature whereas Lauda is methodical and analytical. Despite different approaches to driving, their individual strengths give each driver enough of an edge to stay competitive on the track: Hunt relies on fearless instinct while Lauda tweaks his car and memorizes track layouts. Howard successfully depicts the pair’s complicated dynamic of on-track enemies/and off-track respect, especially as the relationship becomes more complex – even if some of the later encounters are a bit over-loaded with thematic comparisons and overarching life lessons.
Brühl provides a memorable performance as Lauda – though his Austrian accent can come across slightly forced in certain exchanges. Nevertheless, many audience members will come into Rush viewing Lauda as an antagonist to Hemsworth’s Hunt, but Brühl is actually given a slightly more challenging batch of material and the success of Lauda’s psychological evolution (as it’s depicted onscreen) is a testament to the actor’s efforts. In many scenes the Rush Lauda is true to his legacy, a calculating and rough around the edges personality who is respected, but not particularly liked, by his peers and other associates. Yet, there’s a depth and subtlety to Brühl’s turn that ensures Lauda’s brilliance and humanity are not forgotten – despite plenty of moments where he’s abrasive and self-serving.
Hemsworth is offered a bit less to do as Hunt but delivers in his turn as the brash and magnetic British driver. Fans of the actor’s previous work, especially his high-profile role as Marvel’s Thor, will find the same mix of intensity and playfulness that made his God of Thunder a worthy on-screen Avenger. Still, at the same time, it’s a slight letdown that the role, either by design or execution, doesn’t allow Hemsworth to stretch his chops very far. That said, by presenting Hunt with dignity and complexity, instead of a spotlight to showcase his own acting talents, Hemsworth captures the McLaren racer’s raw and spirited essence – while ensuring that, on film, both the character and actor are on-par with Lauda and Brühl.
Rush features a number of competent supporting performances from well-known stars including Olivia Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens), Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones), and Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles), among others. However, few of the roles allow for many stand-out moments – since their primary purpose is limited to filling real-life people and serving as platforms for Hemsworth/Brühl to flesh-out their primary players.
Certain viewers might have hoped for a bit more racing in a film about famous Formula One icons but Rush still manages to capture the speed, intensity, and dangers of the track in sharp and poignant driving sequences that don’t overstay their welcome or devolve into sensory overload. Ultimately, Rush excels in its exploration of the Hunt and Lauda relationship as well as how the iconic rivalry helped shaped each racer – both on and off the track. A few stiff moments where philosophical musings as well as lessons on the value of respect and rivalry are heavy-handed but, overall, solid performances from Brühl and Hemsworth ground this exciting sports story with a likable mix of charisma, reverence, and speed.
If you’re still on the fence about Rush, check out the trailer below:
Rush runs 123 minutes and is Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use. Now playing in theaters.
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