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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: Rush

I went into Rush with some level of disregard. Ron Howard has struck me as a competent filmmaker, but never a spectacular one. Films like Cinderella Man, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon are all enjoyable enough on their own terms but they never strike past the same notes of triumphalism that Howard often finds himself boxed into, particularly in his recent biopics. In some ways, he's a bit like Steven Spielberg, minus the overbearing sentimentality but also without the ability to carve as remarkable a portrait as last year's Lincoln. Previews for Rush did not dissuade this notion, particularly given how little I care for the subject matter. What's the reality? Rush is pretty much par for the course in Howard's filmography.

Rush details the mid 70's rivalry of two skyrocketing Formula One race car drivers, Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). While Hunt is a hard partier, who adores the company of multiple women and has eased into the Formula One circuit on natural talent and rich friends; Lauda has had to claw his way into the sport, taking out a loan to pull together a worthwhile team after his father refuses to support his dream, and making few friends along the way due to his brusque nature. The drivers build an ever growing rivalry from the first time they meet that culminates in Lauda's first World Championship win. After a few financial hurdles, and a rocky marriage to Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) ending in divorce, Hunt claws his way back into championship contention against Lauda the following year. This battle leads to the 1976 German Grand Prix, where racing against hazardous conditions, their lives change forever.

You'll note that I mention only a few players in the above summary, and that's because this is totally Hemsworth and Bruhl's show. No other character really factors in or makes any kind of impression at all. Once leaving the theater, I couldn't even remember anyone else's name, which is troubling as the film attempts to give weight to some of the actions and decisions made by characters that aren't the leading figures. Unfortunately, so little attention is paid to anyone else in the cast, that a viewer can't help but shrug when these wafer thin characters attempt to lean on the plot at any point. 

With that said, the two leads fare somewhat better, and in places this gamble by Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan, to put all their eggs in the Hunt-Lauda basket, pays off. Bruhl is very strong, developing Lauda as a "perfect asshole" who is aware how his outward personality affects his social life, but refuses to back down in order to succeed. It's an interesting performance, and Bruhl, who is poised to break out, carries the dramatic weight of the film on his shoulders. Hemsworth drowns in the material, on the other hand, as his portrayal of Hunt as a swinging playboy is basically his Thor performance channeled by a little more Led Zeppelin-esque lust. With Bruhl bringing A-game line readings, Hemsworth's out of step performance fails to register.

The biggest negative with Rush is that there's a feeling of wear on the proceedings. Everything that occurs on screen is exactly what you've seen before in a biopic, particularly in the sports genre. Yes, this is a true story, but that doesn't mean it has to surrender itself to the typical emotional ploys of this type of film. When the playboy has his inevitable breakdown in the first half, it just feels like a trope, as Howard's bland stewardship of this classic rivalry provides little emotional resonance, with painfully telegraphed moments throughout. When Rush finally creaks into the 1976 Race Season, the film is able to pump up the thrill level to a more satisfying degree, and by their final race in Japan, I finally started to care about the well-being of these drivers. Unfortunately this was beyond halfway into the film when this good stuff started to kick in. It's not unwatchable at all, and I certainly wasn't bored at any point, but I failed to really get engaged which seems to be what Howard and Morgan were aiming for.

There are occasional flashes of brilliance that are even able to peak through the mire. There's a tremendously fun segment where Hunt practices the turns of an upcoming race by memorizing its layout while lying on the floor calling out its various turns as we get to see his "mind's eye-version" of this track. And in Rush's much stronger latter half, there are gorgeously framed "inside the racing helmet" shots that display just how much rain and condensation is hindering their vision as they race through a rain soaked Japanese race track, lending a frightening, yet also thrilling quality to those proceedings. This kind of ingenuity applied to the race action is the film at its best, if only we didn't have to deal with the pesky remainder. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is Rush's MVP by far.

To be fair, Rush delivers on what is promised on the tin, though that tin promises a passable piece of Howard fluff. If you're into that sort of thing, you'll find yourself enjoying Rush just fine. For this viewer, the exhaustion of "another biopic" with the same peaks and valleys as all the others just doesn't work anymore, if it ever did. I think back fondly on Anton Corbijn's Control, and hope foolishly that we'll one day see a sports version of that seminal film. If wishes were horses...

I give it a C+.
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