While I found Ron “Opie” Howard’s new film “Rush” to be a bore, I was impressed by the performance in it by Chris “Thor” Hemsworth. He plays James Hunt, Maclaren’s lead driver in the 1976 Gran Prix Formula One series. Hemsworth makes the lovable bad-boy so charming that he nearly makes up for what’s wrong with the movie.
Howard doesn’t seem to recognize what story he’s telling. I’d guess the idea was the real life rivalry between Hunt and Ferrari’s Niki Lauda (represented here by look-alike Daniel Bruhl) during the ’76 season of races. But the film spends half an hour maundering before we even get to the first race.
Then we are allowed to follow along through brief passages from different races as first Hunt has problems with his car and then Lauda is in a horrible wreck on the track. He had to overcome awful burns to race again just a few weeks later. There were just a few points separating the two in the drivers’ Championship as they started off on the rainy track of the Japan Gran Prix, the last race of the year. This makes the race a perfect climax, if there was a story. And then to compound his error, Howard maunders on after the Japan race is over.
He isn’t going to risk giving us a competition story that uses a plot too much like the one in “Rocky.” Not even if he is going to give us exactly the same components as those that made that 1976 movie so memorable, and so frequently imitated.
Instead the director of “Far and Away,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and several other memorably disappointing films did with this racing story what he always seems to manage to do. He buries his lead. An hour into this longish film, ticket-holders are going to be thinking, now what’s this about?
With the central complication missing in action, the movie becomes about its style. Quite a bit of money has been spent on the production, and the many sets look good and look 1976-ish. Howard is a good director for actors, and he gets decent performances out of his cast. Sometimes they are too good.
Hemsworth’s, for example, is so good that all one’s sympathies go to Hunt. His wife, a model played by Olivia “13” Wilde, deserts him to run away with film actor Richard Burton. Hunt learns of this through a cruel taunt hurled by Lauda. Howard eventually tries for a whole scene to give Suzy some sort of excuse for her behavior, but the audience will have none of it. Then in the Japan Gran Prix section of the film, when the movie cuts back to show that Suzy and other nearly forgotten characters are watching the race on TV, viewers may want to groan at the runaway’s reappearance.
But they’d better not be groaning about the reliance on TV. At least half the dialog in the second half of the movie is what race commentators say during broadcasts of the races. Personally I go to the movies partly to get away from the noise made by talking heads.
Both of the drivers act as voice-over narrators at different times, which I found disconcerting. And then some passages of German language dialog are presented in translation and some are managed with subtitles, and I couldn’t tell why any one got which treatment.
We do see a little racing and some wrecks during the on-track sequences. But they are only colorful and not really extraordinary. We hear the engines roar, see how foggy Lauda’s vision is, and see valves clattering away in the cars’ engines. There is other quick-cut, referential editing in non-race scenes, too. Lots of flashbacks, albeit very brief ones.
The out-of-car sequences, once the story is going, are important, sort of. Hunt has to argue with ownership to get a car to race. Lauda takes off to get married and go on a honeymoon. And the movie seems to delight in giving us grizzly details from Lauda’s tortuous hospital treatments.
But the characters are sufficiently stock that we know them almost at first introduction—Hunt works and plays hard and Lauda is both driven to compete and a stickler for rules. One feels certain that Howard thinks he has shown that hospital time and marriage have made Lauda into a different, less competitive person than he was early in the film. But almost all the evidence is against our acceptance of any real and permanent change in him.
No, Howard doesn’t seem to get any point across during the long and sometimes dull “Rush.” Luckily Hemsworth is around to give us a character to root for. But in what cause?