Film Review: ‘Rush’

Rush 2013 Ron Howard Review

Mozart vs. Salieri. Kennedy vs. Khrushchev. Gates vs. Jobs. Add to that list of epic clashes Formula One adversaries James Hunt and Niki Lauda, whose larger-than-life bout for the 1976 world championship title fuels Ron Howard’s exhilarating “Rush” — not just one of the great racing movies of all time, but a virtuoso feat of filmmaking in its own right, elevated by two of the year’s most compelling performances. It’s high-octane entertainment that demands to be seen on the bigscreen, assembled for grown-ups and executed in such a way as to enthrall even those who’ve never watched a race in their life.

Audience skepticism could give “Rush” a slow start in theaters, as folks question why they should care about such a subject — or wonder what Howard, who has spent the past decade churning out respectable middle-brow entertainments, can bring to the material. But if Universal gives word of mouth a chance to build (screening the film at the Deauville and Toronto film festivals is a good start), they should have a huge worldwide phenomenon on their hands.

The hook couldn’t be simpler: “Rush” pits two personalities from opposite ends of the spectrum against one another in a sport where the stakes are no less than life and death. An Austrian with an innate gift for racing but no sense when it comes to social interaction, Lauda (as played by “Good Bye Lenin’s” Daniel Bruhl) is the pragmatist to Hunt’s British playboy. Already plenty dashing in real life, bad-boy Hunt proves even more irresistible in the hands of “Thor” star Chris Hemsworth, who makes Hunt’s driving look like the least reckless thing about him.

Whereas Hollywood screenwriters tend to give us clear-cut heroes and villains, real life deals in far more ambiguous rivalries, and Peter Morgan’s script manages to deliver complicated personalities with elegance and efficiency, relying on these two fine actors to flesh them out onscreen. The two racers meet in the lower divisions, where Hunt sparks a deep animosity with Lauda by pulling a risky move that could have gotten them both killed. However irresistible the call of glory, “Rush” makes clear the potential cost of ego by depicting an accident early on: A competitor’s car has smashed through a barrier and the driver is nowhere to be seen, replaced by an ugly smear running down the length of the hood.

SEE ALSO: Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’ for Independent Film Financing

“Twenty-five people start Formula One, and each year, two die. What kind of person does a job like this?” asks Lauda at the outset. Those who know what happens to Lauda can appreciate the gravity of his question, which perfectly conveys the edge-of-your-seat incredulity with which sane, feet-on-the-ground types watch such races. Nothing could be worth putting oneself in such danger, even in ideal driving conditions, and yet, the visceral thrill is undeniable — and the mere presence of a worthy adversary enough to push great racers to peak performance.

Modern audiences have been conditioned by the sheer volume of bad screenwriting they encounter day in, day out to be wary of scripts that articulate their own themes as eloquently as humanly possible. “Rush” is such a film, a rare thing where every utterance is “on the nose,” and yet so perfectly calibrated, it would be a crime to force the characters to bury their thematic concerns in subtext. Who needs inane reality-show naturalism when you can have life-and-death philosophy delivered at 200 miles per hour?

As Hunt cavalierly describes his car (in Morgan’s words, of course), “It’s just a little coffin, really, surrounded by high-octane fuel all around — for all intents and purposes, it’s a bomb on wheels.” No wonder the ladies find him so damned sexy: Every time at the wheel could be his last. Even Lauda, with his pinched-in cheeks and rat-like face, has spent more time on the brink of death than any sane mortal hopes to experience in a lifetime. Hunt seems to view the time between races as bonus rounds, to be lived to the fullest, and the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting his R-rated habits — or the streak of spontaneous romanticism that inspires him to propose to model Suzy Miller within moments of meeting, condensed from a courtship of several weeks in real life. (As Miller, Olivia Wilde makes a strong enough impression one can’t help but envy Hunt’s chutzpah.)

“Rush” works so well because Lauda embodies everything Hunt isn’t, and though he too has the good fortune of meeting and marrying a compatible woman (Alexandra Maria Lara) during the 1976 season, their relationship signifies something safer, more calculated and built to endure. Both racers buy their way into F1, where Lauda engineers a faster car, but Hunt embodies the reckless spirit audiences have come to love. It would be too easy to paint the cool-headed Germanic strategist as the villain here, but the film is more balanced than that. It’s as if two completely antithetical philosophies are on the line, and the only way to settle the dispute is on the track.

The thrill of “Rush” would stall if the off-road scenes were any less dynamic, but of course, it’s the racing moments that take the film to the next level. Partnering with d.p. Anthony Dod Mantle, Howard seizes the opportunity to innovate in these retro-saturated sequences, denying the boredom inherent in watching fast cars zip round and around the same track, and integrating compact digital cameras directly into the automotive machinery itself. He takes audiences places that human eyes could never fit as the cars hurtle forward at top speed, pioneering an intuitive visual logic that flows from the stands to the cars to the subjective perspective of the racers themselves — never more frightening than during the climactic Mount Fuji Circuit race, where rain reduces visibility and the drivers may as well be steering by “the Force.”

Though “Rush” extends across the duration of Hunt and Lauda’s hyper-competitive 1976 season, no two races resemble one another, as Howard and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill find ways to condense an astounding amount of story into a hyper-efficient 123-minute running time. Another filmmaker might have made it shorter still, and yet, Howard recognizes the vitality of every moment, how any sacrifice would diminish what makes these two characters so relatably human. Meanwhile, the racing footage is white-knuckle stuff, even — or perhaps especially — when one of them is out for the count, watching on TV while he has his lungs vacuumed in hospital.

To witness this level of storytelling skill (applied to a subject only a fraction of the public inherently finds interesting) is to marvel at not only what cinema can do when image, sound and score are so artfully combined to suggest vicarious experience, but also to realize how far Howard has come since his directorial debut, 1977’s bang-up “Grand Theft Auto.” The technique is so cutting-edge, it’s impossible to tell where the practical photography ends and visual effects begin — and besides, the two leading men are so enthralling, audiences’ minds have little time to drift away from the human-interest story at its core.

Too often in the intervening years, Howard has played it safe, but here, his choices are anything but obvious. He embraces the power of music to heighten the experience, but goes the opposite direction that one might expect with it, using Hans Zimmer’s cello-driven score to steer things to a deeper place. The same goes for the story itself: Who else would have imagined F1 as an appropriate conduit for existential self-examination? And yet, you’ve seldom felt more alive in a movie theater than you will experiencing “Rush.”

Film Review: 'Rush'

Reviewed at the Landmark, Los Angeles, Aug. 22, 2013. (In Toronto Film Festival — Gala Presentations, Deauville Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 123 MIN.

Production

A Universal Pictures release of a Universal Pictures, Cross Creek Pictures presentation with Exclusive Media in association with Imagine Entertainment of a Revolution Films/Working Title/Imagine Entertainment production. Produced by Andrew Eaton, Eric Fellner, Brian Oliver, Peter Morgan, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard. Executive producers, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Tobin Armbrust, Tim Bevan, Tyler Thompson, Todd Hallowell. Co-producers, Anita Overland, Jim Hajicosta, Daniel Hetzer, Kay Niessen, Jen Meurer. Co-executive producers, Mark Mallouk, Peter Mallouk.

Crew

Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay, Peter Morgan. Camera (color, widescreen), Anthony Dod Mantle; editors, Dan Hanley, Mike Hill; music, Hans Zimmer; music supervisor, Nick Angel; production designer, Mark Digby; supervising art director, Patrick Rolfe; set decorator, Michelle Day; costume designer, Julian Day; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Danny Hambrook; sound designer, Markus Stemler; supervising sound editor, Frank Kruse; re-recording mixers, Stefan Korte, Martin Steyer; visual effects supervisor, Jody Johnson; visual effects producers, Moriah Etherington, Alex Hope; visual effects, Double Negative London, Double Negative Singapore, Pixomondo; stunt coordinator, Niki Faulkner; associate producer, Louisa Velis; second unit director, Todd Hallowell; second unit camera, Michael Wood; assistant director, Lee Grumett; casting, Nina Gold.

With

Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Christian McKay. (English, German, Italian dialogue)

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  1. davidllewelynjones says:

    As is often the case with Variety, a very well-written review. I saw the film last week and was quite blown away by how captivating it is, and this coming from someone with little interest in F1. Fantastically executed.

  2. Rolo says:

    Rush Howard directed a good movie! Thor is a great aktor! Those days of Mayberry Life are OVER FOR GOOD! And Olivia De’Wilde is a great aktress, meant to empress oops impress…
    Too bad Rush didn’t do the sound-track! Kind of dorky like those WWE razzlers in loincloth tights, yelling and walking half-nude like a French baguette, at a beach!

  3. Terry says:

    Worked for Watkins Glen during the late 60’s to mid 80’s!!! Have a black and white picture of Lauda and the Fittipaldi’s running toward the “90” at a start of a race in 1975. Oh the memories!! Can’t wait to see the movie. Met most of the famous GP drivers that came through the “GLEN”!! To me Hunt and Lauda are completely different types. Niki is calm and calculated while James was all out party animal!! When I heard about this movie coming out I had to see it and feel those times again!!

  4. Volker says:

    One of the Best Racingfilms I have ever seen. Well done

  5. the ‘RUSH THE MOVIE’ site followed a lot of people on Twitter, acted real friendly and got some positive feed back.. then they unfollowed everybody… that’s just what they did…wow, now we know… yuck

  6. vonryansexpress says:

    Compelling review, however, where is the cultural film memory to Frankenheimer’s seminal F1 film “Grand Prix”?

    Discussions of digital wonder, that do not recall Grand Prix’s multi-camera, varied screen opening, fail to establish the nexus with the tradition that Mr. Howard is recreating. You have to know how you got here.

    Grand Prix was scored by Maurice Jarre—-again the memory shows the movie redux.

    Reviewer?

  7. Meridian says:

    Rush is a must see movie for anyone who wants to see true life triumph over adversity and unbeatable odds. The portrayal of James Hunt true to form, but the portrayal and look into the efforts of Niki Lauder is well deserved and a long over due tribute to one of the people that have made significant impact on the automotive world as a whole.

  8. Paul says:

    Yet another bomb from the person that thought putting poor Jim Carrey in a Grinch costume let alone thought an audience would enjoy a film about David Frost and Nixon. And I honestly think the audience has simply passed old Opie right on by. At least he’s trying but he hasn’t got a clue what the audience wants to see. At this point most films are dying a quick death. This film would be DOA if it weren’t for the action scenes, the ones without the sex, and other than that it’s pretty awful. It also has the R rating kiss of death so all the teens who would go to catch a steamy sex scene can’t get in the theatre. If he’d toned it down a bit he might have been able to at least appeal to the kids. Maybe they’ll make money of PPV and dvd sales.

  9. Bubbles says:

    Excellent review. I went to a screening last night and was blown away. A fantastic movie – I just hope it gets the audience it deserves.

  10. Alan Rinfret says:

    Been waiting for this film for several months. This review makes the wait worth every day. In addition to the competition between Hunt and Lsufa,:it is important to note that these were also some of Formula most dangerous years. Poor safety barriers, crowds too close to the tracks plus racing in suits that had little If any ability to retard flames. Add to that, the fastest racing cars in the world and a driver in James Hunt who, oftentimes, drove in a condition that would have resulted in his arrest on city street. This is a movie that, I hope, many will see.

  11. bighaydo says:

    Errm… Only a fraction of people find F1 interesting? Outside of the football world cup and the Olympics, you’re talking about one of the highest viewed sports in the world! Hopefully the realisation that this is based on an actual story (albeit embellished somewhat for effect) should add a bit of gravity to the leading ‘characters’, and that their feats are not inconsequential. Never one for vanity, Lauds bears his scars from 1976 to thus very day.

  12. Troy Webster says:

    I am amazed at your description of Ron Howard’s playing it safe and how this is so far out of his genre and then you add “Howard seizes the opportunity to innovate in these sequences, denying the boredom inherent in watching fast cars zip round and around the same track, and integrating compact digital cameras directly into the automotive machinery itself. He takes audiences places that human eyes could never fit as the cars hurtle forward at top speed, pioneering an intuitive visual logic …”.
    And you give no credit to the Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle??? He made “Slum Dog…” the visually exciting film that took it to another level and he has done it here with a very non-visual director.
    You credit the score but not the cinematography? And beyond the shots and sequences there is the retro film look that so fits the era. I don’t think this accomplished without Mr. Dod Mantle and his research, talent and work all the way through the DI color timing.
    Shame on you for acclaiming the visuals to be important enough to state “…cinema can do when image, sound and score are so artfully combined… ” with image leading the group!
    Not to mention Mr. Dod Mantle by name is indicative of the ignorance of film critics who think it all comes from Herr Director!

  13. Julienne says:

    It will NOT compare to the Bobby Allison film…a true story.

    • Nobhob says:

      Come on, basic research! Not only is the film a true story, it is a reasonably truthful depiction of it, not a “based on” like so many of Hollywood’s “true” films.Bobby Allison? Formula 1 has always been international- a claim that can’t ever be made with NASCAR.

      The makeup on Daniel Bruhl for the second part of the movie really makes those with a basic knowledge of the story do a double-take- it is absolutely correct. I wonder what Niki thought at the premier…

      • JP says:

        Let’s hope it takes the world by storm. I’m in Europe and it is advertised EVERYWHERE! – Germany, France, Italy, etc.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Okay, you do realize this is also a true story? Have you already seen the movie? If not, how can you make that assumption?

  14. Thomas says:

    Rush is going to kill it.

  15. Rafael Sanchez says:

    September. Not a good month for new movies.

  16. sbob says:

    “the sheer volume of bad screenwriting they encounter day in, day out” — wow, really? Just going to dump that in and keep recklessly driving on. The whole industry lives on the back of the seminal creations of screenwriters. Their solo efforts are too often butchered by nervous execs who have as many as fifteen different writers try to get it it “right”. It is the screenplay alone that attracts the director and the talent. Rarely is a screenplay praised when everything works because of course it was the director and the actor… and here we are left with your short sighted barely contemplated blather… “Rush” works so well because… it started with a good screenplay by a very talented artist.

    • bighaydo says:

      Not to mention that this will be a film closely scrutinized by F1 purists. Poor screenwriting could be paramount to actual life with Rush, either that or having to reduce a highly complex sport to be comprehended by a broader audience..

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