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Ron Howard has set his directorial career all over the map. Early on he made a spate of serviceable comedies (“Night Shift” and “Splash”) and took dips into the fantastical (“Cocoon” and “Willow”) before entering a very serious stage that saw “Backdraft,” “The Paper” and “Ransom.” During that stretch Howard also delivered his crowning achievement, “Apollo 13” (it’s a far more competent and complete work than “A Beautiful Mind,” which garnered a slew of Oscars) as well as the ill-conceived reality TV satire, “edtv.” Along the way, too, Howard unsatisfactorily attempted a cinematic adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s “The Grinch who Stole Christmas” and later ventured into Dan Brown territory, directing the lackluster “Da Vinci Code” films. More recently, the man who had once been Opie of Mayberry appeared more than ready for the directorial graveyard after laying the clucking Vince Vaughn and Kevin James dud, “The Dilemma.” But like the hero of his 2005 boxing drama “Cinderella Man,” Howard has come off the ropes with “Rush.” To sit through the real-life Formula 1 speedway drama, one might think they were viewing the work of an emerging auteur just hitting stride with a first big studio budget behind them.
It’s easily one of Howard’s two or three best films, and the subject matter, while held in check by history and fact, zips along supercharged by the immaculate production, detailed craftsmanship and dead on performances. The men of subject, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, better known as Thor) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), are Formula 1 deities of the early 70s back when household names like Mario Andretti and James Stewart were just getting off their training wheels. Both men were born sons of big European money and both were spurned by their families when they opted to go into something so lowbrow as auto-racing—but that’s where the similarities begin and end. Hunt, a hedonistic Brit off the track and an unbridled force guided by instinct and gut on it, has a need for speed and a flirtation with death. His appetite and personality present bigger than life and fill the screen over the roar of the engines. To put it all in perspective, one fellow racer advises Lauda, who is about to go on a date with the racetrack manager’s ex-wife (because she had an affair in the back of an ambulance with Hunt as her husband stood feet away unknowing), of the act he’s following and adds, “He’s a good driver, but a legendary fuck.”
Lauda, a tacit German who speaks too bluntly for his own good, earned his way up as technician, retooling cars and making them faster by retrofitting them. He and Hunt initially tangle in the lower Formula 3 ranks and re-ignite their rivalry on the bigger stage when Lauda is driving for Ferrari and Hunt is wasting away a foppish British Lord’s largesse and having champagne in the pits. For three years the two vie to be best driver in the world. Lauda, the calculated practitioner, achieves the seat twice but at all times, Hunt is right there ready to take it from him, until the 1976 season, when Hunt leads a coalition against Lauda — who wanted to have a race in the rain on a tricky course aborted, and Lauda, on a tricky hairpin, ends up in a wreck and trapped in a fire that burns him at over 800 degrees for more than a minute.
“Rush” smartly does not let the races become epic events. They’re terse. They make their point. In their own way, they’re mini wonders of film making, brilliantly staged, shot and choreographed. The montage, like the drivers, is efficient and minimal (no extra weight or pomp, just muscle and skill) and the stellar sound editing puts you right there on the track and nearly makes you wish for a pair of ear plugs as the cars rev up and vroom around the track. I’m not sure if I’ve ever walked out of a film and said this should win an Oscar for sound editing, but this is surely one.
The drivers are given soul by the women in their lives and by how they value each other. Hunt goes through women like grease rags, though he does marry the super model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), who in a fit of frustration leaves him for Richard Burton, and Lauda marries a woman (Alexandra Maria Lara) whom he meets at a party he can’t fit in at (because he’s socially inept and would rather be reworking his car in a garage). It’s one of the film’s best scenes when her car breaks down in the Italian countryside and she tries to get a car to pull over for a ride by showing some leg, but the car that eventually does pull over, pulls over for Lauda because it’s full of three racing enthusiasts who consider it an honor to let Lauda drive their car. To that point she had no idea who he was, and after that, it’s love at first swerve.
While “Rush” is a brilliant sparkle, and perhaps relief to Howard, it’s really Hemsworth and Brühl and the chemistry between the two actors that make the film go. With another set of players and a different driver behind the wheel, this might have been a flabby bio-pic without any punch and pull. But something magical has rolled out of the hangar; all cylinders fire in unison. Given the road map, there was little room for error. Howard and the boys punch it home with gusto.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies