Ron Howard is probably the most critically and financially successful filmmaker to not have a distinctive style to call his own. A journeyman whose stylistic tendencies tend to be dictated more by the requirements of his film’s scripts rather than his auturistic flourishes. Also of note is his wildly inconsistent filmography whose eccentricity is only highlighted when you realize that this is the same filmmaker who makes smart dramas like A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon and then counters them with trash like The Da Vinci Code, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and last year’s woeful comedy The Dilemma.
In a way, it’s this very inconsistency that ends up making Rush, the filmmaker’s latest drama, such a welcome surprise. An intense, grimy and pulsating racing picture, Rush chronicles the legendary rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Nikki Lauda during the hotly contested 1976 season. Even if Formula One doesn’t mean a lick to you, chances are you’ll be utterly mesmerized by this vastly entertaining and high-octane thriller – which ranks as one of the very best sports-centric movies ever made.
British-born driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is all-round party animal whose life can be surmised as an endless orgy of sex, booze and drugs. He’s a man who lives in the moment, fueled by the rush of adrenaline. That he could die any moment while driving at the wheel of a tin coffin moving at more than 100 miles an hour only makes him feel more alive. It’s this devil-may-care approach that makes him a superstar on and off the track, and Hemsworth, best known for his role as Thor in the Marvel movies, is more than up to the task. The Australian actor brings that movie star charm to Hunt’s larger-than-life personality while also succeeding in making him a likeable personality.
Austrian-born Nikki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is Hunt’s polar opposite. A cold, calculating and arrogant man who couldn’t care less about cultivating friendships, Lauda is perfectionist driven by precision and the innate desire to be the best in the world. He’s a man who keeps reminding others that he’s not there to make friends. He is the film’s standout personality, and in the hands of the German-Spanish Bruhl, he becomes one of the most memorable characters of the year. Bruhl, who has never had the chance to shine in a project this big, attacks the role with ferocity. It’s a testament to his performance that he makes Lauda both reprehensible and magnetic.
As both Hunt and Lauda begin to smell success on the racing circuit – first in the minor leagues, then in Formula One – it goes without saying that they take an instant dislike to each other. Hunt loathes Lauda’s arrogance while Lauda is disgusted with Hunt’s abrasive personality. As the 76 season comes around, it becomes exceedingly evident that their growing rivalry (and hatred for one another) will push them to heights that neither would have scaled if it weren’t for the competition from the other.
Although Howard has made intense action films before (Backdraft, Apollo 13), Rush marks a dramatic departure from the rest of his oeuvre. This is because the filmmaker, who has long been criticized for his bland style, shoots the film with the verve and prowess of a young and desperate filmmaker hungry to showcase his stylistic flourishes, but also with the maturity and confidence of a veteran making it clear from the start that this is character-centric picture. Rush has the vestige of a prestige picture but also the undeniable stamp of a big studio blockbuster.
It helps greatly that he has found an ally in screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Damned United, The Queen), with whom he previously collaborated with on his Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon. Morgan’s script – an intelligent, funny and colorful piece of work – may have its flaws but is successful in the way that it keeps us invigorated with the white-knuckle action of the racing scenes while also grounding us in the fates of these two men. One of the key strengths of his screenplay is that he doesn’t take sides. Hunt and Lauda may be vastly different men with contrasting ideologies but they both have the same goal. It’s this goal that drives them and thus the picture.
Howard’s other chief behind the scenes collaborator is master cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle whose imaginative and sleek photography gives the film a gravitas, edge and propulsion that a movie about this subject deserves. Mantle’s racing photography here is without doubt among the most impressive ever captured on film. Using racing documentary Senna as a template, Dod Mantle’s work sublimely evokes the look and style of the 1970s while also giving the races a hyper-realistic “you’re there” feel. Also of note are Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill incredible editing work and Hans Zimmer’s soaring score. Rush is a rarity in today’s cinema – a smart, sexy and invigorating action drama for adults. Bolstered by two excellent performances from Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Dod Mantle’s breathtaking cinematography and Peter Morgan’s Grade-A script, this is undoubtedly one of the year’s best films and a high watermark of Ron Howard’s career.