In “Rush,” veteran director Ron Howard and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon”), spend their time exploring the motivations of Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), two champion Formula 1 drivers who maintained a ferocious rivalry in the 1970s. “Rush” is a gripping examination into the psychology of winning that – per Howard’s lifelong M.O. – embraces the audience, even if it does not fit the traditional crowd-pleasing sports movie mold.
Hunt and Lauda first cross paths in 1971 at a race for Formula 3, a kind of minor leagues before the racing big-time. Hunt and Lauda nearly spin into each other. Hunt takes off, leaving his opponent in the dust and winning the race. An upset Lauda considers the move a breach of etiquette and risky. Hunt laughs and leaves to score with another uniformed fantasy object.
Lauda fumes and a rivalry begins. He takes out a substantial loan and buys his way onto a Formula 1 team, proving his skills immediately. Hunt arrives later and plays the part of a pro: taking notes, getting rest. He gets married. Howard shows the union’s faulty foundation by cutting from Hunt’s initial, kind-of flirty conversation with Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) to the two of them kissing outside of the church.
Most of the movie’s action takes place away from the racetrack. Howard and Morgan smartly build Lauda and Hunt’s conflict around their approaches to life. Hunt segues from racing to booze to women like their connections on his daily commute – and that’s the point. Straight-living professionalism is a constant inhale of carbon dioxide. Lauda’s passion is pragmatism and perfection – he can predict a car’s faults just by riding in the passenger seat. Improvement trumps all. As he says during, of all times, his honeymoon, “Happiness is the enemy.” No wonder these guys hate each other.
What is the right approach? Howard and Morgan refuse to put a white hat and black hat on Hunt and Lauda. They’re rebels with different causes, and winning provides the validation the drivers couldn’t get from their stuffy well-to-do families. The leads help communicate that message. Brühl turns Lauda’s mechanic relentlessness into a me-against-the-world pluck. “Do I look like a race car driver now?” Lauda says to his once-doubtful wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) in the winner’s circle. Hemsworth, that ruggedly handsome bastard, only has to smile and we’re bound for trouble.
That Howard handles “Rush” with such confidence is typical. No contemporary director has turned emotional substance into hearty entertainment for so long. Movies tend to offer a bowl of ice cream or a plate of broccoli. With Howard, you almost always get a satisfying, well-rounded meal.
“Rush” contains its fair share of fiery crashes and writhing naked bodies, but Howard rewards us with little gestures, like Hunt nervously flicking his lighter under the table while delivering boasts at a press conference. Or Lauda, the victim of an awful crash, watching Hunt win another race as his lungs are vacuumed. “Rush” is really a high-octane character study, with Howard and Morgan’s sly intelligence ensuring that phrase goes well beyond marketing puffery.
Rating: W W W
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