Ron Howard Goes High-Octane with Dazzling Biopic 'Rush'

Directed by: Ron Howard; Runtime: 123 minutes
Grade: A-

There's a strong urge to work in the words "exhilarating" and "adrenaline" at the very beginning of a review about Ron Howard's Rush, mostly because they're descriptors typically out of place for the director's style ... and, boy, the fact that they so aptly fit this one needs to be hammered home. Granted, one might assume that it'd be difficult to create a film about Formula 1 racing during one of its most hazardous transition periods in the mid-'70s without having some kind of energetic hook, especially in depicting the breakneck, almost hard-to-believe competition between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, polar opposite drivers caught in a harrowing battle of numbers and guts for the crown. Surprisingly, Howard puts the pedal to the metal with his creative inclinations here, harnessing the sport's horsepower, bracing motion, and imminent danger with instinctive and innovative techniques, cleverly infused with the character drama in how these individuals with clashing methods -- both on the track and off -- came neck-in-neck with one another.

After a brief framing scene revealing where the two men have arrived in the '76 F1 season, coupled with narration from Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) that'll reemerge throughout the rest of the film, Rush zips back six years to the beginning of Lauda and James Hunt's racing careers, to their lower-Formula days. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) fits the stereotype of a maverick to an exaggerated T: he's a relentless British playboy who mutes some of his high-octane persona with sex, booze, drugs, and before-race puking, yet his cavalier attitude makes him an aggressive and efficient presence on the track. Lauda, on the other hand, embodies the epitome of a clinical gear-head and risk evaluator, whose ability to modify cars and analyze his driving conditions makes the Austrian, in different ways, just as intimidating as Hunt. Howard's film chronicles how they got in their respective one-seater cockpits -- their financial triumphs, romantic endeavors, and flaunting of their talents -- until it sweeps those watching up in their escalating opposition during that momentous season.

While Howard has experimented with inventive visual tricks and vigorous special effects in the likes of A Beautiful Mind and Backdraft, Rush takes more envelope-pushing risks than his previous works. Slick imagery involving pumping pistons and failing internal mechanisms lend the film an abstract, kinetic energy during the blitz of the races, emphasizing the danger and the beauty of F1 vehicles -- a "bomb on wheels" -- through the lens of Slumdog Millionaire and Dredd cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. More importantly, he captures the thrill of moving north of 150 miles per hour in simply breathtaking racing sequences: the knee-jerk turns, the blur of motion, and the fluctuations in weather create an unexpectedly vigorous atmosphere, guided by the rhythm of aggressive sound design and Hans Zimmer's intuitive score. Against the backdrop of the authentically-recreated '70s locations, Howard has welded together an attitude here that really draws observers into the fray of racing's drama, making it easy to see why gear-heads and thrill junkies alike could get wrapped up in spirited competition.

Rush uses that artistic vigor as a vehicle for the personal drama surrounding the lives of Hunt and Lauda, illustrating how two men made of very different versions of "the right stuff" collide with one another, challenging the other to stretch their limits. The film establishes the type of inclination of people engaged in the potentially-fatal realm of motor sports -- those willing to succeed in motor sports, at least -- then takes us through the head-spaces of these guys and shows how they relish or cope with the danger, funneling into a pure and admirable depiction of competitiveness. Once again, screenwriter Peter Morgan puts the historical characters to the page in rather sincere ways, rarely embellishing their traits to make them likable: Hunt's ostentation and Niki's cold calculation paint them both as aloof obsessives at times, yet one of the film's strengths comes from how their demeanors aren't doctored for easy consumption. They have to earn the audience's compassion against their self-absorption.

Ron Howard does an impeccable job of not painting the friction between Hunt and Lauda as a choice between a hero and a villain, enhanced by the uncanny performances from Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl that go a long way towards enriching Rush as a evenhanded biopic about the drivers. Their authenticity makes their jabs an intriguing match to follow, where Hemsworth's charming daredevil abandon as Hunt often hits a wall against Lauda's clinical knowledge and self-awareness, faultlessly realized by Bruhl; there's a conversation between the two in the film about an insult thrown at Lauda that, in the midst of furiously moving cars and whirlwind dramatics, sticks out at a crowning moment. They're not the only ones in this story either, though: both men endure the ups and down of relationships as guiding forces behind their decision-making and composure, and the shrewd performances from Olivia Wilde as Suzy Miller (Hunt's wife) and Alexandra Maria Lara as Marlene Lauda add depth to the story as the headstrong women impacting them, despite seemingly perfunctory role in their lives.

The drama of the '76 season has enough twists and turns to mesmerize even without the assistance of refined filmmaking, but Howard's delivery makes the whole experience effortlessly accelerate across its two-hour runtime, underscored by developments late in the season that appropriately upshift the drivers' admirable qualities. Concluding in equal measures of daredevil heroics and pragmatic, poignant thinking after the dangers of F1 finally catch up to the men -- namely Lauda, in his storied accident -- it becomes inspirational in their own ways with the eyes of the world upon them. Perhaps what I admire most about Rush is the way it brings those themes home at the end with a simple conversation about the nature of what drives the two men forward, emphasizing exactly how much the film's power feeds off the examination of their characters instead of the machines they drive. It's a mature and confident way of closing out such a thrilling crowd-pleaser of a movie, a piece of work that should register with both racing enthusiasts and those compelled by the spirit of limit-pushing rivalry.

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