‘Rush’ a thrilling, surprisingly complex, character study


By Brett Murphy / Staff Writer


Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde   

Directed by: Ron Howard     

Grade: A  

Over the thunder of a Formula One engine, running his hand across the pristine steel, a character proclaims, “Men like women, but they love cars.” “Rush,” with a good deal of unapologetic chauvinism, makes an argument that they love both. But director Ron Howard transcends the dude-flick trope with a compelling cross-character examination and panoramic look at 1970s Formula One racing.  

James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is an up-and-coming race car driver who embodies the heart-pounding nature of the sport. He scorches around bends and corners, barreling into gaps that scare other drivers, whizzing to the checkered flag. 

Off the track, he behaves with similar abandon. He parties too much, swears too much and drinks too much — but not nearly enough to dull his insatiable thirst for the myriad of women who are in and out his bed faster than a Ferrari down the stretch. But if you look past his grocery list of indiscretions and foibles, he’s really just a kid — impish, overexcited and ruthlessly addicted to adrenaline. 

Hemsworth, with roped blond hair tucked under his helmet and a face that bounces between steely reserve and warmth, bears striking resemblance to the actual British playboy whom he portrays. Aggressive in every sense of the word, Hunt is the likable badass who lives hard, drives harder and, naturally, has commitment issues. 

His wife, Suzy (Olivia Wilde), can only remain by his side for so long before his ferocity on the track makes its way to the home front. Hunt harbors an unhealthy obsession with racing, and when he’s out of the driver’s seat — or worse, losing — his actions often become destructive. When he’s not partying or driving, he’s a decidedly lonesome guy, which might be the only personality type fit for this occupation. 

Back in his Formula Three days, he ran into a racer with much different moral engineering. Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) drives because he’s good at it and he can make a lot of money doing it. If the risk ever goes over 20 percent (there’s a one in five chance of dying in any given race, according to Lauda) he doesn’t get behind the wheel. 

The Austrian racer, even-tempered, calculating and every bit as confident as his British rival, lost in that first meeting. But the two would meet again at the Formula One level, pushing each other closer and closer to the guardrail in their pursuit of the world championship in 1976. 

Both Hemsworth and Bruhl embody their respective personalities skillfully. Bruhl is the awkward foreigner, zealous and self-assured but ill-equipped in the social arts. Everybody pretty much hates the guy. And Hemsworth, rather Thor-like, brings a mountainous presence to every scene. At one point, Suzy tells her estranged husband, “I was hoping you were at least half as impressive on the inside as you are on the outside.” Throughout the movie, both actors present the taciturn “frenemy” dynamic between Hunt and Lauda with poise and conviction.   

They come from similar backgrounds of black-sheep secession, but the two are on separate poles so far as their relationship with danger. Hunt, a natural entertainer, races with passion and vigor, and the methodical Lauda shifts and turns with more foresight. He understands longevity and the power of well-timed submission — his passes are more graceful, and his home life is more stable. 

But his unchecked hubris, bullish personality and presumed dominance on the track make him far less likable. Screaming fans barely notice him when they’re avalanching to get Hunt’s autograph. Lauda is the reliable model and Hunt the volatile prototype. 

Like any good rivalry, the two drivers hate each other only by circumstance and actually owe one another a good deal for their respective greatness — an acknowledgement made a little too late in the movie. It’s a pissing contest with a lifetime of bragging rights on the line. Winning is the adhesive that bonds the two and immortalizes them in the world of high-stakes racing. 

But when a nearly fatal accident lands Lauda in the burn unit for over a month the risk becomes much more crystallized. The “nothing-to-lose” facade behind which they had always hid dissolves, and even Hunt is shaken by the vulnerability. They both have to ask themselves if the rush of the race is worth death. How far will they push to win? Can you afford to have loved ones if it’s them you see fading in the rear-view mirror? 

Howard invigorates the true story with visceral race scenes. It’s not just an “ooh and ahh” spectacle of CGI chrome and color — you actually care what they’re racing for when they shake the earth at 210 mph. But when the engines are off and the tires smoke, “Rush” lets the story navigate, as the two leading men show the effects and scars — both physical and metaphorical — of a life that’s always a breath away from inferno.

“Rush” constantly rides inches from doom. The soaking-wet tarmacs caused by blinding downpours during a race are terrifying for anyone who has ever driven in the rain. Control, it seems, is not readily attainable for those willing to risk death just to live. The movie is about resisting forces  — not just the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt, but between their respective loci of control and their undeniable proximity to chaos and ruin. 

Hunt internalizes the wreck, as the fast life embeds itself to his personality. The normally cool, slick racer discretely vomits before every race. Lauda, on the other hand, falls victim to the external menace of Formula One — the physics of rocket-propelled steel hitting the guardrail with a punctured gas tank. The movie asks you whether or not the binaries — between Lauda and Hunt, control and chaos, risk and reward — define the two men. Are they just manifestations of sports’ extremism or living testaments to the undying purity of competition?