Monday, September 30, 2013

Ron Howard’s Race Car Movie RUSH Is A Solidly Sincere Ride

Now playing at a multiplex near you 

RUSH (Dir. Ron Howard, 2013)

One thing Ron Howard, or Opie Cunningham as those of us older folk used to call him, is well equipped to do is make a race car movie set in the ‘70s that really looks and feels like it was actually made in the ‘70s. After all, he cut his teeth on his first full length feature film as film maker, the 1977 smash ‘em up car chase flick GRAND THEFT AUTO.

The gritty grainy look is dead on in Howard’s newest film RUSH, currently #3 at the box office, which dramatizes the real life racing rivalry of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, two Formula One drivers who competed for the title of World Champion in the 1976 season.

Chris Hemsworth, Thor himself, takes on the role of the arrogant beefy British playboy Hunt, while Daniel Brühl embodies the also arrogant tech-minded Australian Lauda, nicknamed “the Rat” on account of his overbite. Through wins and defeats on racetracks all over the world, we ping pong back and forth from the leads’ point-of-views, with pit stops in their personal lives: Hemsworth weds Olivia Wilde as supermodel Suzy Miller; Brühl gets involved with Alexandra Maria Lara as German socialite Marlene Knaus.

But, of course, the heart and pulse of RUSH is when these guys are behind the wheel of their fast machines. One of the most thrilling scenes comes midway through when Brühl’s Lauda gets in a near fatal crash in his Ferrari at the German Grand Prix. He escaped with severe burns after being trapped in 800-degree heat for nearly a minute. This, you might think, would be the end of one’s motor racing career, but in the case of the ultra determined Lauda, think again.

I went in not knowing nothing about Formula One racing history (or any racing history for that matter), but I often couldn’t tell if I was watching real footage or recreations in the riveting race sequences.

I’ve got to really hand it to Howard because I’ve learned that he uses very little film from that era - only two minutes of archive racing footage appears. Kudos to Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, longtime director of photography for Danny Boyle, for how perfectly they pulled this off. It’s a film that would aptly look fantastic on a screen at a drive-in.

Howard has been accused of having no discernible style as a film maker, and perhaps that’s true but throughout his filmography of broad comedies, sci-fi family films, heartfelt dramas, and Tom Hanks headers there is a discernible sincerity.

And Howard’s brand of sincere story-telling scores in every frame of RUSH. Along with delivering the authentic feel of ‘70s race car action, Howard gets great performances out of his cast – Hemsworth proves himself out of his superhero safety zone, and Brühl, best known for his work in the excellent GOOD BYE, LENIN!, shows why he’s somebody worth looking out for (he next appears as Daniel Domscheit-Berg in Bill Condon’s Julian Assauge thriller THE FIFTH ESTATE) - all to the tune of a sharp, well paced screenplay by Peter Morgan (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, THE QUEEN, FROST/NIXON).

The montage of photos and footage of the real Hunt and Lauda that shows up at the end is, of course, obligatory as the go-to device to cap off biopics and historical dramatizations, but here it fits because the film is so faithful to its source material that the imagery blends beautifully.

So, even though I’m not a racing fan, or sports fan of any type, I liked Howard’s race car movie. I guess my only complaint is its title – couldn’t they come up with something better? Something that doesn’t bring to mind the 1991 Jason Patric/Jennifer Jason Leigh thriller of the same name, a certain Canadian prog rock trio, and a loud mouth conservative pundit, maybe?

More later...

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