The 'sports movie' tends to be a troubled genre; one usually marred by predictability and all too willing to eschew the human spirit behind the sport. Such is not the case in Ron Howard's Rush, which takes us inside the world of 1970s Forumla One racing for a look at a legendary rivalry bewteen two champion motorists. The film is less interested in impressing us with their achievements, as it is in discovering what drives the drivers.
One is James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth); with his roguish good looks, cocky charm and playboy antics, he seems the spitting tabloid image of a stereotypical racing superstar. It helps that he has the God-given skill and renegade aggression behind the wheel to back up his boasts in front of a microphone. The other is Nikki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl); more prickly and misanthropic, but with a sharply analytical mind that serves him remarkably well in the garage and on the pavement.
For all their superficial differences, these two titans of the speedway do share some common track besides just being world class athletes at the peaks of their careers. Both are driven by a combination of their healthy (or unhealthy) egos, their thirst for glory, and by some mutual 'respect/resent' ('love/hate' doesn't quite seem to hit it) relationship with each other.
Their open arrogance towards each other may lead to many tenuous altercations both on and off the track – Lauda delights in lording his superior intellect over Hunt, while Hunt's always at the ready with a barbed quip comparing Lauda to a rat, be it for his bucktoothed appearance or for squeaking up about a miniscule technical infraction on Hunt's car – but there's an undeniable sense that as professionals, Hunt and Lauda rely on each other for the bar-raising motivation that allows them to dominate their sport the way they do.
Hemsworth and Bruhl are excellent in this respect. They ground their dickish characters with enough empathy to make the audience care about them equally, for which credit should also be paid to Ron Howard's even handed direction. Critics have often been divided as to whether Howard's anonymity of filmmaking style is an asset or a deficiency, but here it proves appropriate for chauffeuring Peter Morgan's script through the familiar rhythms of a sports movie.
Besides, Rush already has an auteur stylist behind the camera in the form of director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle, who invigorates the racing sequences with his typically inventive flare, putting the camera not only inside the cockpits, but inside the engine, under the wheels, in front of the spoilers, and even in the drivers' helmets. Also of note is the stellar sound mix which deftly layers in several commentator voice tracks and Hans Zimmer's bassy score alongside the earsplitting revs, roars, and screeches of the race itself.
*** out of ****