Sport and film have a rather hit and miss relationship in cinema. Ron Howard, in all honesty, has something of a hit and miss relationship himself, being the man responsible for APOLLO 13 and FROST/NIXON, but also the unfortunate Dan Brown adaptations ANGELS & DEMONS and THE DA VINCI CODE. It comes as no surprise, then, that his latest film, dual Formula 1 biopic RUSH, is something of a mixed bag. The film trundles along, weaving all over the road before finally getting into gear and trying to make up lost distance in the home straight.
James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is an extremely talented Englishman, but with something of a playboy streak that can lead to recklessness both on and off the track. His nemesis in the dangerous and unpredictable world of 1970s race driving is Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl): a man known for his excellent ability and stiff personality. He became known for the horrific accident which left him with severe burns in 1976 German Grand Prix. RUSH begins at the outset of that race, before shifting back to chart the men’s careers to that point and continuing past it to the conclusion of the 1976 season.
The film trundles along, weaving all over the road before finally getting into gear…
The first half of the film is something of a shambles: seemingly wanting to paint the raw and aggressive Hunt and precise and calculating Lauda as both polar opposites and sides of the same coin. Dual voiceovers from Brühl and Hemsworth feel forced, and muddy the perspective. We are presented with Hunt as an arsehole, albeit a smooth one, and encouraged to admire him. Lauda may well have been a mechanical and precise man in real life, but his treatment in the film’s initial stages as a rather cold Teutonic stereotype makes him a little hard to get on board with.
Eventually, after Lauda’s accident, the relationship takes on a more interesting dynamic; but up until this point it has been about as interesting as watching teenage alpha males arm-wrestling. It becomes apparent there is meant to be respect between the two drivers (as there was in reality), but little of this comes through, with mere antagonism being the prevailing tone for much of the running time. This isn’t to take away from excellent performances from both Hemsworth and Brühl, however: they are even more remarkable given the uneven script.
Some of Howard’s stylistic choices bring to mind his worst excesses to date. When we see Hunt imagining his drive through Monaco, for instance, or Lauda struggling to clear his mind of fear upon his post-accident return, the visuals look as if they’ve been run through an Instagram filter. Early on, the lighting would make you think these men’s entire lives took place just before sunset in an orange-yellow hue. When these ill-advised flourishes surface, it brings to mind the absurd history-overlay scenes from THE DA VINCI CODE. There are Danny Boyle levels of shot tilt at odd times, and the race action sequences seem to have taken a leaf out of every incomprehensible action movie car chase since 2000.
Some of Howard’s stylistic choices bring to mind his worst excesses to date.
This is unfortunate given some of the nice touches laced in: Hunt staring himself down in a mirror whilst he has sex being a rare moment of dramatic subtlety. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, although having some obvious cues, is often highly effective, not least during the closing race of the film.
Which is to imply RUSH steps on the accelerator towards the conclusion, with a terrific closing finale superbly paced and edited. The engaging performances of the lead pair allow the shoddy script to ride shotgun for a fair distance, with Howard’s direction stuffed into the boot. However, the opportunity for RUSH to join Howard’s (or even Brühl’s) best work has long since accelerated over the horizon by the time the cars line up on the grid for the rain-drenched Japanese Grand Prix of 1976.