Monday, September 30, 2013

Rush (***)

Directed by Ron Howard


The world of Formula 1 racing is one of constant danger with every race presenting a twenty-percent chance of a racer dying - as we're told by one of the characters early in this film. It's one of those sports (boxing being another) that makes you scratch your head at the kind of person who'd be willing to take part in such an activity. And that's why it's such a juicy setting for a movie, presenting a varied carousel of complex characters, each with their own version of a death wish. Ron Howard's latest film, Rush, takes a peak at two of the most skilled drivers in Formula 1's history, and two of the sport's most calculated and brave. The film is propped up by its two superb lead performances, with each actor, in their own way, displaying a meticulous obsession with winning - one man willing do anything it takes to win, and the other knowing exactly what it takes and putting his formulas to use.

The rivalry at the center of Rush is between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth - the Hemsworth brother that did NOT date Miley Cyrus) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl*). Hunt is a hulking, blonde-haired adonis with a talent for bedding numerous beautiful women - often at the same time - and a taste for getting drunk every night. What makes Hunt so great on the track is his ability to put away thought processes during a race. At the steering wheel, Hunt is not afraid to act on instinct, to risk his life punching his car into a tight corner to pull ahead of another racer. Niki Lauda's success is built more on data. When he takes out a loan to buy himself onto a Formula 1 team, Lauda immediately explains to his mechanics how to build the engine in order to take two seconds off his laps. He's calculated all of the risks, and is able to decide during a race which risks are worth taking to be the winner. When Lauda and Hunt first meet on a low level Formula 3 race, their personalities immediately clash and it sets off a tense, but mutually profitable rivalry for the two racers.

You don't have to do even a stringent Wikipedia search to learn that the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda is mostly fictionalized by the screenplay (written by The Queen's scribe, Peter Morgan). The two drivers were apparently more friendly in real life, with their rivalry keeping itself mostly to the track. But in the film, the competition plays out even outside of the races. Even when the two men marry - Hunt to the flashy super model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), Lauda to a sweet, principled German woman named Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) - their wives play a part in the two mens' competition, Lauda quickly bragging at how more successfully he's able to handle monogamy than Hunt. But Rush never chooses a side between the two and often audience sympathies are shifting between the drivers with each race. Hunt is charming and handsome, but he's also bullish and a drunk. Lauda is intelligent and disciplined, but is lacking most common social manners. He tells Marlene on their wedding day, "It might as well be you".

The way the film and its director use its two leads is terrific, each actor allowed to fully embody their characters while also playing off their own reputations as performers. The real James Hunt wasn't nearly as ravishing as the dashing Hemsworth but what Hemsworth installs into the character, with his Fabio-an body and hair, transforms Hunt from a race-driving playboy to a larger-than-life rock star. While Bruhl embraces the challenge of playing Lauda admirably, wearing a prosthetic overbite and later in the film, covering his face in burn scars after a horrifying accident. Hemsworth and Bruhl have only a precious few scenes together, but it feels like one is always lurking over the other one's shoulder. With the help of Danny Boyle mainstay, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Howard shoots the film dynamically and with precision, and uses his incredible gift for visual storytelling to put you right in the middle of this rivalry. It's hard to get a better example of cast and director cohesion.

As a sports movie, this is one of the best in a very long time, as Grantland's Bill Simmons documents here, not making the mistake that a lot of sports films usually do. The drama is within the sport itself. Sure, the cattiness between Lauda and Hunt gives the races extra gravity, but the suspense is already there when it comes to a sport that consistently mangles its participants. The entire narrative of this film is built around how terrifying a Formula 1 race can be. So now, you ask, why fabricate Lauda and Hunt's distaste for each other if the race has enough drama on its own? Many may remember a small controversy over Ron Howard's last sports movie, the boxing film Cinderella Man, when the Depression-era boxer, Max Baer, was shown as a boozing, life-threatening animal when in real life he was apparently anything but. As much as I also enjoyed Cinderella Man, when I learned of that story, I felt a little queasy about tarring a professional man's reputation. But with Rush, the addition of tension between the racers not only creates extra drama but also adds dimensions to the already fascinating characters (where the historical change in Cinderella Man arguably subtracts dimensions from a character).

This is a bit of steal of a role for Chris Hemsworth, much more so than his star-making blockbuster role in the Thor series. There's a carnality that Hemsworth adds to the already suggestive words that Peter Morgan puts in his script, and Rush shows that he's much more than the stiff, god-like Avenger with beautiful hair. Much more than Thor, Rush proves that Hemsworth can be a real movie star if he's given the right parts. Daniel Bruhl on the other hand, has been a consistently great young actor for nearly a decade - though most of those performances were in foreign films in other languages and went unseen by American audiences (though one of those performances, in Inglorious Basterds, was seen by quite a few Americans). Rush is the first chance that many Americans have gotten to see the German Bruhl really chew on a scene the way he's so gifted at doing. His Lauda is the more compelling of the two drivers, with his seeming deep distaste for most human beings and his maniacal obsession with finding advantages on the track. There has been talk of Bruhl's performance being pushed by the studio for a "Supporting Actor" awards campaign, and since Mark Harris already tackled it brilliantly here, I don't have to spend a lot of time talking about how ridiculous it is to consider Niki Lauda a "supporting" character

In Bill Simmons' overall terrific piece, he also said that he thought Rush was definitively Ron Howard's best film, which struck me since I don't think Howard has ever made a film that was so great that I would say that it was, for sure, his best film. And that is the problem with Ron Howard, even his best films don't exactly pop in a way that really screams "great film!". Even A Beautiful Mind, a Best Picture winner, has kind of simmered mildly into cinematic history only a decade later. But if Rush is an example of anything, it's that Howard knows how to make a commercial film well. Rush is more R-rated and flashy than his usual movies, but it's still built upon a template for audience satisfaction. Howard the filmmaker has always been synonymous with middlebrow modesty and prestige, and Rush arrived in theaters with the possibility of being a player in awards season. With its fantastic editing and photography, it's probably a good bet for the technical awards, but even without awards, this is Ron Howard's most electrifying film, a film made for adults where Howard plays upon both the drivers' and the audience's adrenaline. Maybe we're the ones with the death wish.

*I'd like it to be known that Blogger, for some reason, cannot recognize a German umlaut which essentially made it impossible for me to spell Daniel Bruhl's name correctly. It was a very frustrating process which ended with me just giving up. Would just like readers to know that I did try. This is literally how it appeared every time I tried: Daniel Bruhl

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