The great strength of director Ron Howard has always been his ability to orchestrate emotions while telling involving stories, but he’s stripped those narrative gears somewhat with this disappointing racetrack saga.
The legendary rivalry between Formula 1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1970s was tailor-made for the movies, concluding as it did with a neck-and-neck showdown for the world championship in the final race of the 1976 Grand Prix season. Yet there’s a strange quality of emotional detachment to “Rush,” combined with occasional confusion as the story jumps back and forth over time from race to nearly identical race, that prevents it from crossing the finish line in the expected blaze of glory.
“Rush” has two major problems and both of them seem to have arisen from good impulses.
The first is Howard’s attempt to put us right in the thick of the action with countless quick edits of fragmented images, a staccato assemblage of pumping pistons, nervously flicking eyes and wheels spinning at 180 miles per hour — no doubt to avoid the tediousness of watching cars race in circles from a distance. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making one race look pretty much like another in addition to undercutting the dramatic context of each overall competition.
“Rush” also attempts to reverse the typical shortcoming of films of this sort by placing more emphasis on the characters than the racing. That strategy backfires, though, partially because of an unusually unimpressive script by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” Howard’s “Frost/Nixon”) and partially because it’s hard to warm to either of the main characters. Despite his easygoing charm, the raffishly aristocratic British driver Hunt (Chris Hemsworth of “Thor”) is too fond of himself by half, while the Austrian Lauda (Daniel Brühl of “Inglourious Basterds”) is cold, arrogant and not above taking advantage of a minute infraction of the rules to nearly scuttle Hunt’s chances in 1976.
It helps that both actors contribute strong performances. Hemsworth, in particular, demonstrates here that he has much more to offer than Nordic god-like good looks. And it comes as a welcome surprise, toward the end, when Howard manages a nifty switch of sympathy from Hunt to Lauda after a remarkable display of courage and determination by the Austrian. Even so, it’s telling that he feels the necessity to include an anti-climactic final meeting between the two, to spell out that they really, underneath it all, respect and possibly even like each other.
That should have been obvious.