Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl: Beauty and the Austrian.
It’s nice to see a sports movie that doesn’t try to lash its protagonist’s need to win to some sort of a greater cause—to save a ball field from being turned into a shopping mall by an evil developer, say, or to make some tragically deceased relative smile once more from beyond the grave. No, the protagonists of Rush aim to dominate Formula One racing because they like fast cars, they’re wildly competitive people, and they want everyone to envy them. Plus, it helps that they just outright hate the living shit out of each other.
James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is all charm and gorgeousness; the kind of genetically gifted rogue who’s infuriating as hell until the exact moment he needs to pull his shit together, and then he’s a hero. On the other hand, you have Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) a funny-looking Austrian who is as precise and blunt as Hunt is unpredictable and laid-back. From their first meeting, the two men are disgusted with each other—Hunt even does a little chicken dance to goad an already exasperated Lauda into losing his cool. It’s nice to see a rivalry based on nothing more complicated than inexplicable mutual hatred.
I’m not going to lie: With the too-cute-to-hate exception of Viva Las Vegas, I hate auto racing movies. The reason for this is probably because I hate auto racing. But I was still drawn in by Rush, probably at least in part because director Ron Howard has been very vocal about his apathy toward the sport. For the snooty couldn’t-care-less-about-NASCAR crowd, the film dutifully explains the allure of Formula One. The car is “just a little coffin, really,” Hunt cheerfully explains as he tries to woo a woman with the sport’s innate sense of danger, also referring to it as “a bomb on wheels.” Howard shows us a few crashes over the course of Rush. One is a bird’s-eye view of a spinout that looks almost placid from above. Another crash scene shows a driver’s torso reduced to a bloody nub that’s almost completely indistinguishable from the tangled wreckage around it. Things get bloodier, and more shift-in-your-seat uncomfortable, from there.
I can’t say that Rush inspired me to watch a real Formula One race or made me care about racing beyond the confines of the film, but Howard at least manages to convey a sense of respect to his viewers with his tense (and exceptionally loud) race scenes. He also works as hard as possible to sell the whole look of the film, hypersaturating nearly every frame with loud primary colors and a grainy, 1970s-style film stock appearance that keeps everything interesting to look at even when Hemsworth’s ass isn’t on display. (The only part of the production that really falls down is the score, which probably represents Hans Zimmer’s worst work to date, culminating in a terrible Con Air rip-off theme that plays over the closing credits.)
But the feature that really sells Rush is the fact that it’s based on a true story. Lauda and Hunt really did run neck-and-neck during that season, Lauda really was an insufferable prick, Hunt really did wear his button-up shirts open down to the navel, there really was a life-threatening accident and a too-incredible-to-believe recovery. These two racers were at each others’ throats from the day they met, and they were willing to end their own lives in order to show the other guy up. It makes for some great drama. And the actors are all terrific; Hemsworth has never been more charismatic, and Brühl somehow manages to hold his own against Thor while playing a man whose primary characteristic, besides rat-facedness, is his pleasure in being a huge dick. The female parts are entirely underwritten—history has to take some of the blame for that one—and reality intrudes to suck some of the drama out of the final race, but Rush manages to avoid a whole obstacle course of cliches while telling a fast-moving, moving story about fast racers that somehow doesn’t make me want to die. Any way you’re counting, you have to chalk that up in the win category.