Racing to define a champion
Three stars (out of four)
Ron Howard’s Rush is every bit as commercial as the ad-festooned cars and uniforms of the Formula One racers he’s dramatizing.
Yet even as he steers directly towards the multiplex, he also gives art house regulars reason to start their engines.
This is no mere thrill ride by two real-life rival speedsters, although it is certainly that. The film also provides a sobering look at what it takes to be a true champion.
You’d expect Rush to cut to the chase, but Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) tease us a bit in establishing the ego vs. egghead rivalry between 1976 top guns James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl).
Neither racer is an easy sell, although the casting is right on with two rising actors who are ripe for serious leading roles.
Hunt is blond, British and brash, as quick to chase nubile young things (including Olivia Wilde’s gimlet-eyed Suzy) as he is to tear down the pavement.
Lauda is icy, Austrian and austere, a believer that science as much as talent leads to winning results with his state-of-the-art Ferrari. When he’s matched with a woman (Alexandra Maria Lara’s sultry Marlene) it seems more by accident than by design.
The two men could hardly be more different, apart from a shared determination to win and closely matched driving skills. Verbal sparks fly as they constantly challenge each other both on and off the race course.
When Lauda delivers a major setback to Hunt’s plans by filing an official protest against a tiny mechanical infraction by the latter’s McLaren car, a shared autograph session turns ugly.
“Rules are rules,” Lauda tells Hunt.
“Yes, and rats are rats,” Hunt retorts.
The film follows the 1976 season from its testosterone-fuelled start in Brazil to its rain-soaked finale in Japan, carrying us with it the entire way.
Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) don’t stint on the burning rubber and skid marks — racing fans will love it — but they and scripter Morgan also sustain the Sunday drivers in the audience.
A near-tragedy during a race in Germany abruptly changes the leader board in the Formula One season and the emotional stakes in the film. (It’s worth mentioning that this section also tests the audience’s tolerance for visceral crash and hospital scenes.)
Rush shifts into a higher gear of contemplation, one that asks us to reflect on the high cost of being on top of a sport where a single bad turn can end a career — or a life.
We learn to appreciate that Hunt and Lauda both have more going for them than an almost supernatural need for speed.
Best thing of all about Rush is how it maintains suspense until the final flag drops. The 1976 Formula One season truly was an amazing test of skill, bravery and resolve.
Do yourself a favor and don’t Google the real-life results before seeing the film.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.