America has a unique relationship with sports. While the rest of the world idolizes soccer, we here in the U.S. obsess over football, baseball, and basketball – college, pros, and fantasy. But over the past several years, NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) has emerged as a major interest for sports fans as well.
Like football, NASCAR is a mostly unique-to-America phenomenon (though it does have an international presence). It is not that people in other countries do not love fast cars, adrenaline-pumping races, and the threat of high speed crashes - in fact, they like their racing even faster and more dangerous.
Formula One Racing (F1) is not unknown in America, but it definitely takes a backseat to NASCAR. Because of this, a movie about F1 race car drivers could be a rather risky proposition for Hollywood. Or is it an advantage because most do not know much about it or one of the sport’s most famous rivalries?
That question did not stop director Ron Howard from pushing ahead with his new film Rush, a heart-pounding action-drama centered on the intense, true life rivalry between F1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the thrilling 1976 race season.
With most real life sports dramas, the audience already knows the outcome. And though the best of the genre can overcome that, it does take a bit of the suspense away. Rush – chock full of drama and surprise – does not have to worry about that (with American audiences at least). Sure, the film still hits all the standard sports movie plot points, but most people – having no real preset association with story – will be in the dark and wonderfully caught up in the moment like it is happening in real time. Even if you know the outcome, Rush is still a passionate, edge-of-you-set thrill ride that is worth reliving.
Hunt – played with fierce intensity and effortless charm by Chris Hemsworth – is an attractive, cocky hotshot and about as close to a California surfer dude as a British man can get. Hemsworth is great and truly stretches his acting chops considerably more than his famous Thor appearances. There is more to this Australian actor than just supermodel looks and a superhero physique – and Rush proves that.
But as great as Hemsworth is, German actor Daniel Brühl – playing the wily, methodical Lauda – is the real breakout star of the movie. Brühl brings a bit more depth to his less flashy role and absolutely nails the accent and subtle mannerisms of the character. Despite his notoriously blunt and superior demeanor, you cannot help but like his portrayal of Lauda. Like the F1 racing at the heart of the movie, Brühl is far more known in Europe, but with standout roles in this, the upcoming The Fifth Estate, and 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, he is quickly rising to much deserved stardom in Hollywood as well.
Both characters’ confidence, passion, and ferocity shine through. Brühl and Hemsworth play off each other wonderfully and it is easy to buy their friendship/rivalry. Though there is tremendous tension between the two, there is also quite a bit of playful ribbing back-and-forth. Of course – rather clichéd, but necessary – they end up teaching one another something about both life and racing. These two men need each other – both on and off the track (though a little more on, surely). And rightfully so, the film purposely builds up both men so that there is no villain – just two fierce competitors. To be honest, you end up wanting both to win.
In addition to Hemsworth and Brühl, both characters’ wives (played by Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara, respectively) are solid in bit parts as well. And Christian McKay steals every scene he is in as Lord Hesketh, Hunt’s wealthy, fun-loving friend and benefactor.
Director Howard appropriately lays the tension on thick and there is an ever-present threat of crash, injury, and even death looming over the film. F1 Racing, especially decades ago, is ridiculously dangerous and the film makes sure the audience knows that from the get-go. The race scenes – of which there are rightfully many – are fun, sharply edited, and extremely well-captured (as are the crashes). It is nothing new to put the camera inside a speeding car to give the audience the feel of being along for the ride, but has never been done better and more intense than here. The film also manages to never get a lost in the shuffle and chaos of the race, despite the speed. You always know where the two main drivers are and exactly where they are on the course – an accomplishment in and of itself.
Despite being an Academy Award-winning director, Howard is a fairly safe filmmaker, which makes him a bit of divisive amongst moviegoers – some love him, others do not. Rush is probably his best film (certainly since 2001’s A Beautiful Mind) and definitely his most daring and flashy. The screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland) is top-notch, as expected from one of the best.
Maybe Rush, one of the best films of the year, will ignite a little more American interest in F1 Racing. And if this film and the rivalry/sport it depicts is any indication, it would definitely be worthwhile. But then again, America likes to be different, especially when it comes to sports and NASCAR has a pretty firm stranglehold on the country’s racing fans.
* * * * ½ out of 5 stars
Rush opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, September 27 and locally at The Theatres at Canal Place and all three AMC Palaces (Clearview, Elmwood, and Westbank).
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