Movie Review: “Rush” Offers Thrills, Spills & Soap Suds

Rush_movie_posterBy Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

The asphalt rumbles like nothing you’ve ever heard or felt before…a symphony of horsepower in metal, rubber, plastic and dangerously powerful racing fuel. The flags of nations wave in the grandstands, complemented by the splashing advertisements of big name sponsors.

All the beautiful people, adorned in designer sunglasses and threads, are there, and maybe me, too, focused on the dashing drivers, and on the famous marques — Ferrari, Mercedes, Lotus, etc. — dedicated to a perfection in speed.

Such is the world of “Rush,” director Ron Howard’s skillfully filmed paean to the legendary, illustrious battle for the 1976 Formula One championship waged by Britain’s James Hunt and Austria’s Niki Lauda. OK, it’s not “Grand Prix” (1966), arguably the archetypical auto racing film, but a nevertheless rousing progeny and competent revisit to the most elite realm of motorsports.

Mr. Howard, admittedly not an aficionado of F1 but a studious, technically proficient filmmaker, adds an Alexis de Tocqueville dimension to the exciting saga and supplies a mini primer on the sport that may or may not entice the great unwashed. To make it cinematic, historical liberties are taken and facts politely twisted. Positing a tortured pun, the Formula One tale doesn’t escape Hollywood’s formulaic treatment.

Specifically, Messrs. Lauda and Hunt were to rivalries what the Boston Red Sox are to the New York Yankees, and what Muhammad Ali was to Joe Frazier. The nascence of the fierce enmity is traced to their early days in Formula 3. But the bitterness is shown to extend beyond the track. Fact is, while indeed vicious foes when buckled in, they were respectful colleagues off the grid, commiserative souls appreciative of the rarified air in which they mercilessly dueled.

Very few of Tinseltown’s best screenwriters have found a way to take niche interest subjects and fatten them up for profitable mass consumption without pulling out the old reliable stencil. The otherwise great “Cinderella Man” (2005) was besmirched by the ogreish persona they put on heavyweight champ Max Baer in order to supply a convenient villain to the doings. In reality he was an affable guy. Coincidentally, Ron Howard directed that one, too.

That noted, save for license taken with a few details of chronology to turbocharge matters, ardent followers of Grand Prix racing will agree that “Rush” provides a basically sturdy account of the events that ultimately led to that last checkered flag on October 24, 1976, in Japan.

Serendipitously, I forgot if it was Lauda or Hunt who got to spray the champagne from the winner’s podium while his country’s anthem was played. In defense of my graying gray matter, I like to think my subconscious deleted that bit of info from my hard drive in order to make it more suspenseful for me.

Director Howard allows a little time to let the tale warm up, fine-tuning the backstory and running through the twists and turns of the subtexts before accelerating the main plot. It ultimately results in a white knuckle, tension-filled crescendo to the finish. Whew!

However, mixing CGI magic with some actual footage, the realism factor, while solid, is doubtlessly hampered by contemporary restrictions. Paraphrasing a reflective John Frankenheimer, director of “Grand Prix,” sometime before his passing in 2002, “We had actors actually driving racing cars….there’s no way they’d let us do that today.”

But that’s alright. This is hair-raising stuff enough and effectively balances the melodrama in the garages, pits, executive offices and, of course, the principal drivers’ bedrooms. Suffice it to note, in the dramatic dichotomy perpetrated from pole position to finish line, Hunt and Lauda embraced their own styles and raisons d’être both on the track and in their love lives.

Call it an open-wheeled variation on Aesop’s Tortoise and the Hare. Hunt is the bon vivant playboy, portrayed with Brad Pitt good looks by 6’3” Chris Hemsworth. He drinks, parties and stays up late. Conversely, Lauda, etched starchily well by a considerably shorter Daniel Brühl, is a no-nonsense ultra-pragmatist in search of Germanic perfection. Yet, despite relentless chiding regarding lifestyle, that mutual admiration grows.

But here again, Mr. Toynbee might be moved to ‘tsk-tsk-tsk’ from the observation tower. One unsubstantiated scene meant to accent the anomalous tribute, wherein Hunt viciously punches out a reporter who asked Lauda some very unkind questions, reminds that the account slips off track whenever chief steward Howard feels it’s necessary to please the crowd. Still, no harm, no foul. The essence of the pageantry and romance is intact.

It’s colorful, it’s grand and opulently exciting once the director shifts gears from soap opera cruise to adventure overdrive. And while car racing enthusiasts across the spectrum — from strict constructionists to casual dilettantes — will naturally vary in their appraisals, significant others brought along for the ride may wonder what all the hurry to “Rush” was about.

“Rush,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Ron Howard and stars Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl and Alexandra Maria Lara. Running time: 123 minutes


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