The absolute last thing I could’ve imagined enjoying — even respecting — is a movie about Thor racing around in a circle for two hours, directed by Ron Howard, who is always serviceable but rarely inspiring. Rush is a welcome surprise, however: Ron Howard does with Formula One racing what directors do with the best sports movies: Parse out relatable themes, and explore human ambition, the nature of rivalry, and how our enemies often bring out the best in us.
Rush recreates the 1970’s clash between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), a hard-drinking, promiscuous Englishman who embraced the mortal dangers of F1 racing, and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), an Austrian who thought of racing in terms of risk and percentages, who approached each race mechanically. The two couldn’t be anymore dissimilar, but their rivalry was legendary, equal parts animosity and begrudging respect. They were driven by their hatred of each other, but it was that drive that made the two the best in the sport.
What’s remarkable about Rush is how true-to-life the amazingly gripping story is, culminating in the heated competition for the 1976 Formula One World Championship. Real-life does a remarkable job here of subverting the sports-movie formula, turning what seemed like a underdog story about James Hunt challenging the arrogant World Champion into a film that’s almost less about winning, and more about surviving a sport where two out of every 25 racers apparently die each year. That danger brings in a second layer of tension to Rush: Who wil win, and who will survive?
Hemsworth does an excellent job, as you might imagine, of playing the aggressive, hard-charging Playboy who f*cks everything in his path, including a nurse played by Natalie Dormer, and Hunt’s first wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), who would later leave him for Richard Burton. Brühl has the more challenging role of making sympathetic an unlikable, rat-faced anal-retentive heel, and it’s a credit to his performance that, by the final act of Rush, the audience’s alliances are split fairly equally between Hunt and Lauda. The final act, as a result, is thoroughly and intensely nail biting.
Howard, working from Peter Morgan’s (Frost/Nixon) script, is his usual sure-footed self. For better or worse, Howard lacks a signature style, and while he rarely adds anything to his movies, it’s to his advantage when the story is strong enough to thrive on its own. Rush is exactly that: A great story reliably told; Howard stands back and lets the actors and the screenplay do all the work.