There aren't many great racing movies, but Ron Howard's Rush should take its place high on the list, and once it's been out long enough to seep into the public's memory it probably will.
I have no idea if mainstream movie consumers will embrace this latest Ron Howard film, but they should, because Rush is about a lot more than just the highest level of auto racing. Instead, it uses the background of Formula 1 racing more as a setting (not that there isn't some nice racing footage), a stage on which to tell a compelling story of two remarkable and very different individuals, both of whom pursue the same goal, but from very different perspectives.
The events of Rush would make for a great story even if they came solely from the imagination of a top author. But they don't, and that makes it even more interesting.
It's kind of like Howard did with Apollo 13, applying his and his team's formidable movie making prowess to a real life story, an especially tough job to pull off since the characters and situations are known well already. Too much Hollywoodization and you lose the racing fans, too much gearhead focus and you lose the mainstream.
I think he's done a fine job of treading that line, but I'm a car and racing nut anyway so I was rooting for Rush to be good. Fortunately, it also satisfied my movie snob side as well - it is, indeed, a ripping yarn with fascinating, three dimensional characters you can care about.
If anything, I'd have liked more racing footage and if there's any area in which Rush could be made better, it's there. On the other hand, the last great Formula 1 movie to come along - John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix - had more (and better) racing footage but got bogged down off the track thanks to a 1960's era soap opera plot. It's a film that races fan love, but (at least in my experience) few others.
But Rush is a great companion piece to Grand Prix - and unlike the Frankenheimer epic I got my wife to sit through it!
The story follows rival racing stars James Hunt and Niki Lauda, covering their early days in lower tiered racing but focusing mostly on the wild 1976 F1 season in which Lauda was defending his previous year's world championship title against the old rival who suddenly has a car that's the equal of Lauda's prancing horse.
The Austrian Lauda is brilliant, methodical and technical. He doesn't suffer fools lightly and knows exactly what he wants. He's early to bed and early to rise and focused like the proverbial laser beam.
Hunt, a Brit, is the opposite. He lives the life of a rock star, with parties, women, booze and drugs galore. He's the amiable "bad boy" everyone hates to love, but loves anyway.
There's plenty of racing here (though never enough), done via a combination of live action footage and excellent CGI (how things have changed since the awful Driven) that also managed to transform a single facility into an entire F1 season's venues. There's even some fairly poignant romance, some fascinating and quite moving scenes of Lauda's struggle to survive, and even some good laughs.
One of my favorite scenes is when Lauda, freshly hired by Ferrari, is driving through the Italian countryside with his girlfriend and their car breaks down. The woman tries to flag down a passing car - because she's attractive and, after all, it IS Italy - but things don't work out quite as planned. The ensuing moments will have car nuts rolling on the floor.
The performances are excellent. Daniel Brühl is deserving of an award for his portrayal of Lauda. Even if it weren't particularly like the real Lauda, it would be a tour de force, but the fact that he also nailed Lauda himself makes it more remarkable.
Not that Chris Hemsworth is a slouch as Hunt. The actor better known for his portrayal of Thor turns in a performance that takes what could have been a caricature and gives it real depth - bravado backed up with a kind of Peter Pan-like innocence that's as endearing as Lauda's single minded, take no prisoners demeanor is off putting. You want to root for Hunt because he's such a great guy. You want to not root for Lauda because he's such an anal jerk.
Except that you can't argue with Lauda's logic, and the fact that he puts his money where his mouth is. And of course his remarkable return to the cockpit makes you root for him as well.
Plenty of credit must go to screenwriter Peter Morgan, who says on one of the supplements that he consulted extensively with his friend Niki Lauda. It shows.
The production looks great, though I'm not sure the 1970's look, as good as it is, really shows off the high definition Blu-ray format to its best. Colors are desaturated (possible to make the vintage footage used match better) but the image is sharp and clean. Alas, you don't get that "pop off the screen" brilliance that can look nearly 3D with the best BD's.
That doesn't mean you'll mistake this for VHS, of course, and the look actually helps contribute to an authentic feel. Also helping is an excellent production that got the costumes, the vehicles, and the rest of the background right.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and it's so dynamic I had to watch the movie with my big home theater system turned down about five notches so the racing sections wouldn't blow the walls farther apart, bringing the ceiling down on us. I kid you not. Well, maybe a little. But it is a very loud soundtrack. Unfortunately, the racing scenes kind of leap out at you, whereas the non-racing scenes aren't as loud, so you may find yourself riding the volume control a bit.
The soundtrack also envelops you beautifully, immersing you into the world being recreated.
Alliance Atlantis' review copy included a DVD and download instructions for a digital copy. Extras include several deleted scenes which are quite interesting to watch, though the movie doesn't really suffer from their removal. Basically, it's stuff that fleshes out existing scenes or situations.
There are two documentary features on the Blu-ray and they're both interesting, though a tad more promotional than informational. The first, "Race for the Checkered Flag," is a "making of" series of short documentaries you can watch separately or, nearly, together (you don't have to go back to the menu after each segment, but they're all self contained otherwise). It's interesting and gives some decent background and behind the scenes info.
The other feature is "The Real Story of Rush," and details the real life Lauda and Hunt. Alas, while I was hoping for some real life Lauda and Hunt, by far the lion's share of this series of shorts is the cast and crew of Rush talking about them. I realize Hunt is long dead, but I'd have been fascinated to see Lauda reminisce, as well as contemporaries such as Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, etc. There's a bit of this, but I wanted less Hollywood and more F1. Oh, well.
I wanted, and expected, to like Rush. I haven't seen all of Ron Howard's films, but I've generally enjoyed the ones I have. And I loved Apollo 13, his closest project to Rush. And as a sucker for racing films - a predilection that generally leads to disappointment- I was grateful that Rush works as a racing movie as well.
But what surprised me was how well it works as "just" a movie. The story could be set in the world of baseball, competitive golf, hockey, or whatever, and it would still work. Of course the fact that it's set in an environment in which - unlike most other sports - the participants have a 20 per cent chance of not surviving a day at the office ups the interest quotient substantially, making it more exciting than if the story followed, say, a season of championship chess.
In short, it's a real Rush!
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray