Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: "Rush"

Director: Ron Howard
Runtime: 123 minutes

The marriage of a Formula 1 racing story and Ron Howard, king of the middlebrow adult drama, is a head-scratcher on paper. Howard's films rarely dip into the sort of dangerous, even sexy, territory that defines the subject matter of a film like Rush. Yet even though this racing drama has its share of major faults, it certainly represents a return to form after 2011's dead-on-arrival rom-com The Dilemma. Most impressively, Howard even gets to show off his rarely seen stylish side.

If you're wary that Rush is little more than some lunkheaded racing drama, have no fear. Despite the subject matter, Howard and scribe Peter Morgan's story is as much a character-study as it is a cinematic adrenaline rush. After a brief mid-70s intro, the story proper kicks into gear at the top of the decade, quickly introducing us to handsome hothead James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and rival Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Both men prove themselves as skilled racers on the Formula 3 circuit, but it's not long before Lauda finds ways of cutting corners into the big leagues. 

Yet Bruhl's Lauda is no cheat, despite the many instances where Hunt calls him a rat. Rats, according to Lauda, may be unappealing, but they're also smart and determined survivalists. While Hunt drinks and sleeps around, Lauda spends time obsessing over the smallest specifications of his car, even showing his Ferrari-backed mechanics a thing or two about design. As Lauda keeps his nose to the grind, Hunt continues to live life to the fullest, until it starts catching up with his career. Lauda is an obsessive perfectionist, but he also has Hunt beat when it comes to playing the sponsorship game. 

Morgan's script may not contain many surprises (even if you go in unaware of a major late game development), but it does at least keep the simple narrative moving. Howard's directing, filled with some of the flashiest techniques in his entire career, more than keeps pace. Even when the Hunt/Lauda rivalry scenes become redundant, Howard and his editors never let the film stall. The director also deserves credit for his handling of the slick racing sequences which, despite their Tony Scott-inspired freneticism, never lose coherence. If anything, one could argue that Howard and Morgan wait too long before fully delivering a real racing scene.

That's not to say that there aren't glimpses of the sport, or its deadly consequences. Morgan's focus, however, seems to boil down exclusively to the rivalry drama. This would be perfectly fine, even great, if it weren't for the hollowness of Morgan's own writing. As stated above, the scenes that pit Hunt and Lauda against each other lose their novelty quickly. Both men may refuse to significantly change, but Morgan never gives enough heft to the reasons for their mentalities. Hunt's condescending remarks and Lauda's hard-ass attitude make for some fun exchanges, but somewhere around the midpoint you wish they'd find something else to say to each other. It doesn't help matters that Morgan opens the film with voice-overs from both characters as a means of establishing their backgrounds. It's an efficient way of covering each man's emotional history (both were disowned by their families), but it undercuts the drama that the film actually does show us. 

At the very least, Hemsworth and Bruhl turn in a pair of effective performances. Both do their best to elevate the table scraps Morgan has thrown their way, and each has his moments. They so successfully inhabit their respective personas that it becomes frustrating to see them tackle such repetitive material. Bruhl emerges as the stronger of the two, though that's largely due to the tragic fate of his character that allows some excellent make-up work to do part of the acting for him. Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara are, likewise, effective, though they have even less to work with and a paltry amount of screen time.

The most satisfying "performance" ends up being Howard's work behind the camera. Aided greatly by glossy, stylish visuals from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Rush looks as vibrant and dangerous as the races at the center of the drama. Regular Howard collaborator Hans Zimmer continues his recent winning streak with surging score that avoids his recent bombastic tendencies. Sound work is, unsurprisingly, up to par, and the racing scenes sound as good as they look.

Rush was, reportedly, a huge crowd pleaser when it played at the Toronto Film Festival, which is hardly a surprise. This is sleek and sexy entertainment that retains just the right amount of Howard's tasteful aesthetic. The film may drop the ball when it comes to the drama, but it never slides into tedium, thanks to Howard's flashy approach. Even if you're the furthest thing from a racing enthusiast, Rush has enough good qualities to make it an engaging, momentarily gripping, experience. Just don't expect it to linger much once the tires stop screeching.

Grade: B-  

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