As sleek, swift and finely tuned as a Formula One racing car, Ron Howard’s “Rush” seems a lifetime away – both in horsepower and budget – from the Oklahoma-born director’s first feature film, 1977’s rowdy, revving, car-chase indie, “Grand Theft Auto.”
Since those early days when he was transitioning from Opie (“The Andy Griffith Show”) to Richie (“Happy Days”) to Steve (“American Graffiti”) and into one of his generation’s most accomplished and respected filmmakers, Howard has circled the track with a steady progression of well-crafted, mainstream studio vehicles – highlighted by a double Oscar win for 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind.”
The polite knock against Howard has always been that his movies feel almost too precisely crafted and predictable. With a Ron Howard picture, you always know what you’re getting.
That’s generally true of “Rush,” which follows the standard sports biopic progression of its dashing antagonists – 1970s Formula One racing rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda – and puts its cameras at asphalt level (a la “Grand Prix,” “Le Mans,” “Days of Thunder,” “Senna,” etc.) to record the ear-splitting, rubber-burning, noxious-fumes sensations of the big-time international auto racing.
But, canny master that he is, Howard, and his astute screenwriter Peter Morgan (who penned another mano-a-mano epic for Howard in 2008’s “Frost/Nixon”), find a perfect balance between the pulse-pounding pandemonium of macho racecar culture and the Greek-tragic dichotomy of its two starkly clashing anti-heroes.
In the freewheeling ‘70s, an extraordinary duel developed between two of Formula One’s rising stars – the British playboy swashbuckler Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the icy, dour, Austrian tactician Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).
In Hemsworth and Bruhl, Howard has two actors perfectly suited to their parts. As the libertine Hunt, Hemsworth is all blond flowing locks and 007-style sexual allure. He parties and boozes the night away before a race and then brazenly puffs pot before slipping behind the wheel of his torpedo-like ride and driving impeccably. Bruhl, with his clipped Viennese accent, haughty demeanor and “rat-faced” countenance, perfectly embodies Lauda as he obsesses over every mechanical detail, snarls at his crew and meticulously plots his strategy before each race.
And the men’s off-track lives are equally divergent – with the womanizing Hunt falling into a glam marriage to the silken, high-maintenance beauty Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), and Lauda coldly negotiating a marriage of convenience to the worrywart Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara).
Howard plays out the men’s snarky, competitive thrusts and parries in pithy, stylish, human-scale scenes that nail the swinging ’70s milieu without a hint of caricature. And he punctuates those with thrilling, visceral racing sequences that employ every cinematic trick in the book to put audiences in the middle of the piston-pumping action. And with a sure hand, he leads us to that tragic inevitability, on a rain-slicked track at Nurburgring, Germany, when one of the men meets a fiery date with dire fate.
Befitting its Formula One motif, “Rush” stays true to formula and to Howard’s track record for splendid if not daring filmmaking. And like its feuding drivers, the movie is at once sexy and entertaining, and blunt and calculating.
- Dennis King
3 ½ stars
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Buhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara
(Sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing language, brief drug use)