Ron Howard makes me a little nervous. I never know which Howard is going to be running the show. The sarcastic genius (“Arrested Development”), the observant dramatist (“Frost/Nixon”), the blockbuster king (“Angels and Demons”) or the cheesy family man (“Splash”). The latter two make me cringe, but the former get me excited to go to the movies.
The only frame of reference we have to go off on in terms of sports movies is Howard’s 2005 “Cinderella Man,” a family film about a depression-era boxer. I wanted a gritty film; Howard wanted heartwarming. I was afraid that “Rush,” which tells the true story of two Formula One rivals, would take the same high road.
I was wrong.
I read that early on in the production, Howard learned that there wasn’t enough money to finance racing shots. The job of screenwriter Peter Morgan must have quickly shifted from adrenaline packed car scenes to a character study of the two men: the Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and the British James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), who in 1976 erupted into a fierce battle for the Formula One title.
Lauda is a stern man, obsessed with his automobile in a serious way, he spends nearly all his time in his garage and let’s his fiancé know that he’s not really into showing affection and he’ll more than likely forget her birthday. Hunt is a ladies man – vain and cocky. He also gets married, but for purely aesthetic purposes. Morgan’s script allows the two actors to deliver wonderful, rich performances uncommon in your average sports film. And a few spectacularly shot racing scenes serve as fantastic backdrops to the story, rather than a little character development taking the backseat to “Fast and Furious”-style car scenes.
The performances are wonderful. Bruhl, mostly known to American audiences for his work in “Inglourious Basterds,” is relentless as Lauda. He is fierce and concentrated; Bruhl breathes humanity rather than caricature into the performance. Hemsworth is such a powerful physical presence that it is simple to write him off as just a pretty face, but his performance is nuanced and full.
Don’t miss “Rush,” not only one of the greatest racing films of recent memory, but definitely one of Howard’s most original feats.