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Rush: Faster, Thor! Kill! Kill!

by admin September 20, 2013 6:00 am
Rush: Faster, Thor! Kill! Kill!

Ron Howard's 22nd feature film, the Formula 1 racing drama Rush, also has the distinction of being his first independently financed vehicle since his days toiling for self-made B-movie king, Roger Corman. But don't get too excited, sports fans -- Opie hasn't gone all Harmony Korine on us. Although produced outside the studio system within which Howard has been ensconced since the early '80s, Rush (which is being distributed in the U.S. by a major) is as mainstream a movie as they come. Still, if it isn't exactly innovative on a formal or narrative level, it does remind you that, when gifted with a particularly strong piece of material, few journeymen directors can craft more skillful commercial crowd-pleasers than the maker of Splash, Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind.

In the case of Rush, the material flows from the pen of Peter Morgan, the British scribe who has cornered the market on tony dramatizations of major and minor historical events, from the death of Princess Diana in The Queen to the reign of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland to the short reign of Leeds United soccer coach Brian Clough in the severely underrated and underseen The Damned United to the face-off between David Frost and Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, which marked his first team-up with Howard. Basically, he has the career that rising screenwriting star Danny Strong (Recount, Lee Daniels' The Butler) desperately wants and may one day achieve when he figures out how to translate history into dialogue that doesn't sound like bullet points derived from Wikipedia searches. The key to Morgan's approach is that he treats actual events as background for the conflict between two characters that represent opposing forces, typically those of tradition (i.e. Queen Elizabeth II) and modernity (Tony Blair). In Rush, based on a real-life bit of sports history from the '70s, he tweaks that formula slightly to pit art against science in a battle to define what makes Formula 1 racing such a… well, rush.

Heading up the forces of art is British driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), a flamboyant, intensely charismatic hunk who -- in the immortal words of Dominic Toretto -- lives his life a quarter mile at a time. A wild man and off the track, Hunt lives for the sense of danger-laced exhilaration that racing provides. That attitude puts him into direct conflict with the General of Science, Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), a no-nonsense Austrian who keeps a close eye on his stats and practices risk-avoidance driving. Taking an instant dislike to each other upon their first meeting in 1970 when they're both Formula 3 drivers angling to upgrade to the big leagues, the duo continue to weave in and out of each other's lives over the next six years as they separately experience a variety of personal and professional ups and downs. Lauda nabs his Formula 1 spot first, but has trouble making friends and/or lovers, at least until he finally wins the heart of the lovely Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). Hunt, meanwhile, has too many friends and lovers (including the woman he briefly marries, supermodel and future Richard Burton paramour Suzy Miller, played by Olivia Wilde) and not enough focus to remain a viable competitor. But then a sudden and violent accident in the midst of the 1976 racing season redefines their rivalry, allowing both men to see how their opposing worldviews has actually made them better drivers. They don't have to like each other, but they do need each other.

In case you don't fully grasp the nature of the film's art vs. science thesis statement at first, don't worry --Morgan forces the actors to repeat it a number of times during the course of the film, most glaringly in a climactic tête-à-tête that sounds like the conclusion to a college term paper. That kind of heavy underlining is a regular weakness of Morgan's scripts as well as Howard's past films -- he enjoys entertaining the audience, but he doesn't always trust them to "get it." (I mostly liked A Beautiful Mind, but boy did Howard oversell the big reveal of John Nash's schizophrenia. I half-expected Russell Crowe to step off the screen Purple Rose of Cairo-style to make sure absolutely no one in the theater was confused as to what precisely was going on.) While we're on the subject of things that don't really work about Rush, I was disappointed in how pedestrian the racing sequences were -- a chaotic roar of quick cuts, second-long shots and ear-shattering sound effects. It's an impressionistic style that seems motivated primarily by budget concerns and it's not one that fits Howard's more classical skill set. (The lone exceptions are the pivotal, accident-causing race that comes halfway through the movie and then the championship match, where more care is taken establishing the geography of the different tracks.) Meanwhile, talented actresses like Wilde, Lara and Natalie "Margaery Tyrell" Dormer (who pops up early on as one of Hunt's conquests) are absolutely wasted on this project, which in disappointing biopic tradition reduces them to second citizen status as the wives to great men.

If Rush gets somewhat lost in the weeds in the regards to the bigger picture going on around Hunt and Lauda, the movie stays convincingly on track because the director, writer and actors nail that central relationship. Freed from the weight of lugging around Thor's hammer (not to mention the Huntsman's axe), Hemsworth is delightfully brash and bubbly, playing Hunt as a charming rogue in the manner of Errol Flynn. And while Brühl gets the less showy part, he ends up carrying much of the dramatic weight of the picture and doesn't have to strain to get the audience rooting for Lauda despite his sullen attitude. It's rare to see a sports movie where you care equally for both competitors and it's a credit to Morgan -- as well as the performers, who play off each other wonderfully -- that Rush doesn't completely give into the typical underdog vs. champion scenario. Armed with a solid script and two great actors, Howard's chief contribution is keeping the movie clipping along, avoiding the bloat that afflicted his studio-backed prestige pictures like Cinderella Man and The Da Vinci Code. If Rush is typical of what an indie Ron Howard picture looks like, than I'm perfectly fine if he never accepts a dime from the studios again.

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