Speed Kills: Ron Howard Gets Stuck in the Pit
Ron Howard’s fast-paced portrait of one of Formula One’s fiercest rivalries is a hyper-compartmentalized affair. Everything in Peter Morgan’s too-tightly knit script occurs as one more bubble of narrative information equal to the last. The result is a moderately pleasing movie whose arc swerves more than it climbs and peaks. Only rarely does the story breathe. Morgan — the screenwriter on such winners as “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon” — never allows a single race to epitomize the battle of wits and jealousy between the rivals.
‘70s era racecar drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda present the kind of oil and water dichotomy that screenwriters fantasize about. Daniel Brühl (“Inglourious Basterds”) plays rich-kid-engineering-genius-turned-racer with a steely tenacity that all but eradicates Chris Hemsworth’s casual performance as the oversexed playboy racer James Hunt. “Rush” is Daniel Brühl’s picture, and he knows it. Where Brühl’s teeming performance bounces directly on top of every beat, Hemsworth plays his character out of time. The effect only works intermittently between flurries of Grand Prix racing sequences in different cities that are kept too brief for the audience to invest enough in their outcomes. Each Grand Prix location gratuitously appears in bold graphics across the screen, giving the movie a cartoonish quality that emphasizes the undernourished nature of the races. Audiences familiar with Lee H. Katzin’s great 1971 Steve McQueen-starrer “Le Mans” will have a strong sense of what’s missing from “Rush.”
Still, the movie has fleeting moments that connect. A scene where the woman (Alesandra Maria Lara) who will become Niki Lauda’s wife eggs him on to show off his driving skills in a borrowed car, makes an elegant segue to Lauda driving in mid-race at a Grand Prix. For an instant we feel the rush of Niki Lauda’s passion. Lauda’s logical approach to racing allows for the “20%” amount of risk that he will die in any given race — but he refuses to allow for any larger percentage of danger. His attempts at preventing a Grand Prix race due to torrents of rain support his philosophy. Lauda suffers an unfortunate accident after being voted down by his fellow racers who view his effort to stop the race as self-serving.
Another scene, in which James Hunt lies on his back holding a steering wheel while visualizing his upcoming race in Monaco, provides an exacting view inside the mindset of a Formula One racer who has every twist, turn, and gear-shift memorized down to a matter of split-second timing.
Such moments elevate “Rush” out of its kneejerk repetitiveness. Clever camerawork involving small cameras attached to the racecars give glimpses of what it feels like to drive Formula One cars through S-curves at 170 miles per hour. If only the filmmakers had done more to connect the guts of the race sequences with the inner monologues of its dueling drivers, “Rush” might have been more than the passably entertaining ride that it is.
Rated R. 123 mins. (C+) (Two Stars – out of five/no halves)