‘Rush’: Chris Hemsworth in an instant auto racing classic
By RICHARD ROEPER Movie Columnist September 26, 2013 11:12AM
James Hunt Chris Hemsworth
Niki Lauda Daniel Bruhl
Suzy Miller Olivia Wilde
Marlene Lauda Alexandra Maria Lara
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan. Running time: 123 minutes. Rated R (for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters.
Updated: October 28, 2013 6:02AM
In the individual sports, it’s nearly impossible to become a champion for the ages if you don’t have a fierce and lengthy rivalry with an opponent of near or equal skill and heart.
Jack Nicklaus needed Arnold Palmer. Muhammad Ali needed Joe Frazier. Nadal/Federer, Hagler/Hearns, Earnhardt/Waltrip, Duran/Leonard …
And in the 1970s on the Formula One racing circuit, it was Niki Lauda vs. James Hunt. They needed each other.
Even if you don’t know Formula One from the Soap Box Derby, Ron Howard’s “Rush,” like all great sports movies inspired by true events, is foremost about getting to know and understand the characters. By the time we get to the inevitable Big Game/Race/Match, the stakes are so high and the drama so real we find ourselves tensing up — even though we’re watching a re-creation of events long since in the record books.
“Rush” ranks among the best movies about auto racing ever made, featuring two great performances from the leads, who capture not only the physical look of the racing legends they’re playing, but the vastly different character traits that made their rivalry, well, made for the movies.
At first blush the brusque, detail-obsessed, virtually emotion-free Austrian Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and the cocky, womanizing, partying Brit Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, his blond locks only slightly shorter than Thor’s) are such polar opposites they make Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed seem like kindred spirits. But as we follow their rivalry from the stepping-stone Formula Three circuit to the big stage of Formula One, we see there’s more to Lauda than his relentless quest for perfection, while Hunt learns the hard way he’s not immune to heartbreak — and he uses that pain to dedicate himself to the world championship.
Lauda’s a perfectionist in the garage, tirelessly working to build a better machine. Hunt figures he’ll floor it when you’re easing off on a turn and he’ll roar past you.
When Lauda proposes to his girl Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), he says he’ll probably forget her birthday and he’s not much for holding hands, “but if I’m going to do this with someone, it might as well be you.” Hunt also gets married, but he proposes to supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) because they’re two of the best-looking and most fabulous people on the planet, so why not go for the fairy tale? (Even when the marriage falls apart, it’s in spectacular fashion. Richard Burton steals Suzy while James is brooding and boozing over his stalled racing career.)
Director Howard expertly sprinkles in the domestic scenes while giving us just enough “inside baseball” sequences to familiarize the non-fan with Formula One racing without getting bogged down in the detail. The terrific script by the great Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Last King of Scotland”) keys in on what makes these men risk their lives every day when they go to work — and then we get another cool, 1970s graphic establishing the next European or South American or Asian stop on the 1976 circuit. (“Rush” is rated R, and it should be. If you’re going to show the horrific crashes, not to mention Hunt boffing his way through half the stewardesses, models and groupies of the time, you can’t just hint at it.)
As Hunt puts it, these Ferraris and McLarens are coffins sitting on high-octane fuel. And though Hunt’s the risk-taker, it’s Lauda who winds up in the hospital, his face horribly burned, his lungs so filled with soot and smoke they have to be “vacuumed” via a long tube inserted into Lauda’s mouth — while he’s conscious.
Less than two months later, Lauda is back in action, against all medical advice. He’s not about to let Hunt take away his title by piling up the points while he’s sidelined.
Lauda needs Hunt. Hunt needs Lauda.
Chris Hemsworth is so comic-book handsome it takes a while to realize what a fully realized performance he’s giving, playing a guy who loved the celebration as much as he craved finishing first. Hunt isn’t some empty-headed himbo. He loves racing because it makes him feel like a modern-day knight.
As for Bruhl’s work as Niki Lauda: This is nomination-level acting. The Austrian perfectionist role could have been the stuff of caricature — and indeed Lauda gets most of the laughs in the movie by virtue of his near total lack of social graces. But we also see flickers of playfulness in Lauda’s eyes during a hilarious hitchhiking scene that winds up with him behind the wheel in the Italian countryside, much to the rapture of two fans in the back seat. Bruhl is also magnificent conveying Niki’s maddeningly analytical philosophy (“Happiness is the enemy, because when you’re happy you have something to lose”) and his relentless determination.
Ron Howard has an Oscar and he’s been one of our best storytellers for 30 years. This is one of his most impressive efforts, with an edgy, kind of “euro” feel, especially in the harrowing racing sequences.
Real-life spoiler alert: Niki Lauda is still with us. James Hunt is long gone. Mr. Lauda has recently expressed his regrets Mr. Hunt won’t be able to experience “Rush.”
It would have been great to see them see it together.