Monday, September 30, 2013

Movie Review: Rush

Directed by: Ron Howard.
Written by: Peter Morgan.
Starring: Chris Hemsworth (James Hunt), Daniel Brühl (Niki Lauda), Olivia Wilde (Suzy Miller), Alexandra Maria Lara (Marlene Lauda), Pierfrancesco Favino (Clay Regazzoni), David Calder (Louis Stanley), Natalie Dormer (Nurse Gemma), Stephen Mangan (Alastair Caldwell), Christian McKay (Lord Hesketh), Alistair Petrie (Stirling Moss), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Anthony 'Bubbles' Horsley), Colin Stinton (Teddy Mayer), Jamie de Courcey (Harvey 'Doc' Postlethwaite), Augusto Dallara (Enzo Ferrari), Ilario Calvo (Luca Di Montezemolo), Patrick Baladi (John Hogan).

Rush, like most films directed by Ron Howard, is pretty much exactly the film you expect to see when you walk into the theater. The trailer sets up a good racing movie, with a rivalry between the hotshot, go-for-glory mentality of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) vs. the cautious, intellectual approach of Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), and basically shows how their rivalry developed over a number of years, culminating in their season long dual in 1976 for the F-1 Championship. And that is precisely what Howard delivers, in a film where the racing scenes are expertly staged, and the performances are top notch. The one thing about the film that did surprise me – pleasantly – is how it never takes sides. It doesn’t turn Hunt into a hero, and Lauda into a villain, or vice versa. Instead, it presents two men, with completely different views on what it takes to be a winner – and lets the audience decide who was right, and who was wrong – or, if you’re like me, decide that they were equally right. Both men raced the way they needed to if they wanted to win.

The movie sets these two drivers up as polar opposites – and benefits greatly from the performances by the two leads. Chris Hemsworth, who has never really had a chance to show his acting chops (he’s fine as Thor, but there are no nuances to that character) portrays Hunt as foolhardy – a fun loving party guy who drinks, smokes and screws constantly, and when he’s behind the wheel, he depends on his own intuitions. He has no fear, gleefully accepts the prospect of death, and goes for broke every time out. It’s a fine performance – and I suspect American audiences are going to be on his side more than not – even though Hunt was British, he is almost a prototypical brash American – and Hemsworth relishes the opportunity to play this charming bad boy. He doesn’t have all that more depth than Thor – but it’s a different role, and one that suits Hemsworth. Daniel Bruhl is even better as Lauda – a man who doesn’t care if anyone likes him, he’s just there to win. He’s more involved with the mechanics of his car, and knows every detail of the race he’s going drive. He is a technical driver, one who relies on his intellect to win. At first, he is the much less sympathetic – and likable – character. But he is also given more depth than Hunt. It would have been easy to turn him into an unfeeling villain – but Peter Morgan’s excellent screenplay doesn’t do that. In fact, by the end, I was rooting for him.

The racing scenes are some of the best of their kind ever put on film. Working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Howard has crafted scenes that are loud, brash and exciting – often putting us behind the wheel with the drivers. Although at times Howard does rely on some rapid editing, he never loses focus – and you never lose perspective on what is happening. You feel the rush (pardon the use of the word) of the races in your guts as they are going on – that mixture of excitement and fear, that feeds the drivers need to go out there week after week and risk their lives.

As a narrative, Rush follows a fairly well-worn path – the two rivals start off hating each other, and gradually they build up a begrudging respect for the other person. They still may not like each other, but they realize that in a way they need each other – the presence of the other fuels their desire to get better, and pushes them to places they otherwise would not get to. That’s not exactly an original observation, but it gets the job done.

And that pretty much describes the movie as a whole – not exactly original, but it gets the job done. Howard has always been a gifted technical director – and this has to rank as one of the best of his career in that regard. And he has always been good with actors – and he gets career best work out of Hemsworth and Bruhl (the rest of the cast is pretty much disposable – but have some nice moments). And Peter Morgan’s screenplay is very good – stripping the movie of much of the filler movies like this often have, and concentrating on what works. Rush is precisely the movie the previews promised it to be – and for me that makes it an immensely satisfying, if not overly original, movie.

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