The 1976 Formula One championship remains a memorable season for racing fans, mostly due to the visibly edgy relationship between two of its top competitors. The handsome James Hunt was as reckless and carefree in his life as he was taking daredevil turns on the racetrack. He won victories for his ability behind a steering wheel and headlines for his flagrant womanizing. His nemesis on the racetrack, the Austrian Niki Lauda, was a cunning opponent with enormous skill on the racetrack but a cold, detached approach to life. In Ron Howard’s Rush, one of his best films in some time, we become deeply immersed in the ongoing game of one-upmanship between the two drivers, even as they remain most unlikable egomaniacs.
Chris Hemsworth plays Hunt as a flamboyant champion keener on showmanship than whether he lives to the end of each race. We see Hunt vomiting before each of his races, which his teammates declare “good luck,” but may be Hunt’s awareness of his mortality. We believe him as he makes carefree declarations about not fearing death while moving at speeds up to 150 miles per hour. Lauda, played by Daniel Bruhl, immediately takes a dislike to Hunt, who is not only taking all of his acclaim and trophies but most of the available women in Europe.
While Bruhl gives a good performance, the adversity angle doesn’t entirely come across, as Lauda is portrayed as more of a heartless villain than a worthy rival. Initially, both leads are playing unlikable, egotistical jerks, but we finally see the lost boy beneath Hunt’s shiny façade. As portrayed by Bruhl, Lauda is amusing but he comes across as a one-note adversary.
Rather than noting the contrasts between the two men, we root for the engaging Hunt by default, as he at least knows how to have a good time. Lauda comes off as something of a sociopath, which makes rooting against him too easy. We should have been in his corner more.
The late Tony Scott’s thrilling but far sillier Days of Thunder is still the best film about racing and taps into the insane mindset that drivers put themselves into. Still, Howard is an underrated action movie director and he delivers on capturing the excitement of being behind the wheel of a car that, with just a few inches off the mark, could go careening out of control. Howard may never top the astonishing spectacle of his Oklahoma Land Rush reenactment in Far and Away but his thorough recreation of the 1970’s racing world is persuasive, though CGI fire is still a poor substitute for the real thing.
The third act is the strongest, as Hunt and Lauda’s relationship has transformed dramatically and the stakes for both on the racetrack are greater. With Hanz Zimmer’s roaring score, the crisp editing and the whoosh of the cars speeding across the screen, the film builds to a finish both emotionally charged and hold-onto-your-seat exciting.
Thor made Hemsworth a star but this is his arrival as an actor. Hunt is his most layered, enjoyable turn to date. The lovely Alexandra Maria Lara has a few sassy introductory scenes before getting stuck playing Lauda’s long suffering spouse. Ditto Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s girlfriend.
Many scenes are filmed in a dark blue color hue that makes many scenes appear overcast. I grew accustomed to this, even as it proved an unnecessary touch. While based on a true story, the screenplay relies on racing movie clichés that were old even before Talladega Nights lampooned them. Still, if you’ve got the need for speed, this is one of the best films of its type. Howard’s latest is a fast, sexy ride.
★ ★ ★ ★
Rated R / 123 Min.