Rush Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde. Directed by Ron Howard. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Ron Howard is probably not the first director you’d think of to make a viscerally exciting movie about car-racing, but way back in 1977 he made his directorial debut with a little Roger Corman production called Grand Theft Auto. So maybe Howard has just been waiting all these years to once again unleash his skills at shooting fast cars zipping past each other in a thrilling manner. Or maybe the credit should go to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; either way, the racing scenes are by the far the strongest elements of Howard’s otherwise bland Rush, based on the true story of the 1970s rivalry between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl).
Hunt and Lauda both begin the movie as cocky upstarts whose respective inflated self-images fuel their antagonism. The British Hunt is a reckless heavy partier, while the Austrian Lauda is methodical and off-putting. Their attempts to defeat each other behind the wheel are often suspenseful, but the depiction of their off-track lives is mostly generic. Hunt drinks too much and sleeps with a parade of hot women, while the humorless Lauda struggles to relax and have a good time. The movie seriously squanders its female characters, including Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara as Hunt and Lauda’s respective wives.
When Lauda suffers a serious injury late in the movie, the races finally start to feel like they have real stakes, and the drama amounts to more than just the macho posturing of two arrogant superstars. But the course of history dictates a sort of anticlimactic conclusion to the duo’s showdown, and Howard might be a little too enamored of his flashy racing scenes to make something of the low-key way that things ended up.
Still, those racing scenes, often shot to look like footage from the actual era, are fantastic, and Hemsworth and Brühl are both charismatic as the lead characters. Howard, known for his relatively sanitized prestige pictures, doesn’t shy away from the sex and violence inherent in the story, making the dangers of racing feel real and immediate. It’s just a shame that the rest of the story isn’t nearly as engaging.