What kind of person would strap himself into what is essentially a bomb and race around a track at an ungodly speed without an ounce of fear? Only the "rebels, lunatics, and dreamers", that's who. Ron Howard's Rush is about two such men, brash Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the analytical Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), two men forged in the fires of an intense rivalry that would power Formula One racing in the 1970s. The aptly-named Rush is all gears, drive shafts, adrenaline, and burning rubber, and it's easily Howard's most impressive and confident film in years.
In his second teaming with Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan, Howard has delivered a sexy cool thrill ride that will hook you right from the starting gate. The danger in any sports film, and is especially true with a niche like F-1 racing, is to make it more than just the nuts, bolts, and rules of the road. Rush is at its heart the ultimate guy flick, about two vastly different guys whose hatred for one another was only surpassed by their desire to be the best, no matter the consequences.
When we first meet Hunt he's storming into a hospital, dressed in his racing gear and bleeding from the face. Clearly injured, he's still all swagger and braggadocio, and within moments he's bedding one of the nurses (Natalie Dormer in a throwaway role, sadly) and embarking on a whirlwind fling. Hunt is a live-wire magnetic guy with a personality that makes everybody love him, or at least want to be in his orbit. He leads with the chin and thinks from his gut, staring down death without a moment's hesitation. Lauda is almost too perfect a rival for him. The chilly, rat faced Kraut is the picture of cold, clinical precision and intensity, but his chilly demeanor makes him a pariah with few friends. To him, racing is a business, one to be considered and examined with a fanatical monk-like discipline. Their divergent philosophies only converge at the single aspiration of becoming an F-1 world champion.
But first they have to get through the lower-tier Formula 3 races, and the film does itself a great justice by letting us in on the ground floor of their epic conflict. It's in the minor leagues that we see the origins of their mutual contempt, and it opens the door to a richer experience as the contentious relationship evolves. Hunt always seems to be one step behind Lauda; trailing behind him in securing big money deals, landing the more advanced cars, and then hitting the big time in the F-1 circuit. But Lauda never had Hunt's fearlessness or natural charisma, and certainly not his gift with the ladies.
Sadly, those ladies aren't given a whole lot to do in the film other than serve as window dressing. Olivia Wilde has a spot of tea in the role of Hunt's first wife, Suzy Miller, who would ultimately ditch him for the more glamorous Richard Burton. Alexandra Maria Lara plays Lauda's wife, Marlene, who after an assured introduction is given little to do but look really concerned about his safety. This is a bro movie so perhaps it's understandable the ladies would get the short end of the stick, but it's still disappointing to see that side of their lives basically ignored. Morgan's script shares some of the same thematic beats as Grand Prix and Days of Thunder, the "competition as life microcosm" aspect a familiar one in most films in the genre. A minor problem that Morgan has always had rears its ugly head as he tends to underline the film's themes unnecessarily. This is most noticeable towards the end as the film stretches for a coda that is fairly obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.
Fortunately, Hemsworth and Bruhl are absolutely amazing in what are career-defining performances. Hemsworth gets a chance to prove he's capable of more than playing an Asgardian thunder god. He exudes confidence and sexual energy in every scene, and is careful not to overplay it to the point where Hunt becomes more of a caricature. It's Bruhl who really comes away looking like a champion, giving the icy Lauda warmth that wins us over as he goes through some pretty severe life challenges. While the difficulties he faces are best left unspoiled for those who haven't yet hit Wikipedia, Lauda must eventually learn to put aside his "outsider" reputation and let others through his emotional wall. He's also forced to come to grips with his own mortality and limitations, a lesson that doesn't come easily. Both actors are great separately but they are superb when sharing the screen as Lauda and Hunt's career-long battle gives way to a mutual respect and realization that they aren't so different.
Aided by Hans Zimmer's riveting score and breathtaking cinematography by Danny Boyle's favorite DP, Anthony Dod Mantle, the race sequences thrust you right in the heart of the action. Howard, who has always been one of Hollywood's safest and least inspiring directors despite his box office successes, makes you feel every gut-wrenching twist and turn of the track. You can practically smell the ozone and exhaust fumes in every visceral, action-packed moment. The final rain-soaked race is an emotional and visual stunner, momentous in execution because of the incredible stakes involved.
Even if you don't know a tail pipe from a tail feather, Rush will win you over with its brilliantly-staged action and deft attention to character detail. It's a stirring tribute to two men who didn't just compete for a living, but competed as a way of life and drove one another to become the best in the world.