Review: Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl both shine in Ron Howard’s dynamic racing drama ‘Rush’

TORONTO – Ron Howard must be one of the most successful directors to have ever made as many giant films as he has without developing his own signature directorial style, and while one could level that against him as a criticism, I think in some ways, it’s the key to his success. He is rarely the star of his movies the way someone like Scorsese is. Instead, Howard seems to reinvent the way he tells a story based entirely on which story he’s telling, and in the case of “Rush,” that strategy pays off to remarkable effect.

Peter Morgan’s script is inelegantly structured, particularly in the first half hour, and at first it feels like they’re not sure what story they’re telling. Gradually, though, the film settles into a rhythm, and things snap into focus. Once they do, Howard’s filmmaking seems to get more and more confident, and by the end of the film, I was shocked to realize just how invested I was in the story of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), especially considering how little I care about the world of Formula 1 racing.

Howard seems to be drawn to telling stories about the workplace and the way people collide in that space, and while not many of us know what it’s like to work as a race car driver or an astronaut, he is able to capture the intensity of something like a Formula 1 race or NASA while staying focused on the human story unfolding. At the start of “Rush,” James Hunt and Niki Lauda are both working in the bush leagues, both of them drawn to racing for very different reasons, both of them approaching the art of driving in very different ways. Hemsworth attacks the role of James Hunt the same way Hunt evidently attacked life, with nothing held back. It is a movie star role, and Hemsworth more than rises to the occasion. Hunt is a man of huge appetites, and with Hemsworth’s charisma cranked all the way up, it’s easy to see how people were drawn to him. For Hunt, racing is a way of taunting death, and he loves the charge he gets from living right on the edge. When he wins a race, it’s an excuse for unfettered debauchery, and when he loses a race, that also seems to be an excuse for unfettered debauchery. He feels like he’s not cut out for anything resembling a “normal” life, and he also feels entitled to a certain sort of libertine freedom.

For Lauda, however, racing is a craft, a science, something he feels he has outsmarted. He is driven in his own way, but motivated more by a fury he feels towards the world at large, determined to force them to treat him with a respect that has eluded him his whole life. Bruhl is amazing in the film, and it actually shocked me to learn that Lauda helped develop the film and offered his support to it, because Morgan’s script pulls no punches in showing Lauda as an insufferable prick, a guy who didn’t seem to remotely care about being liked.

Just looking at the two of them side by side, they are a study in contradictions. As burnished and beautiful as Hunt is, Lauda looks like a rodent, an ugly little man with a personality to match. They instantly clash when they meet on the racetrack, and Hunt drives Lauda off the road, infuriating him in the process. Hunt becomes a symbol of everything Lauda hates about racing, and that hatred drives Lauda to push harder, determined to surpass Hunt. Lauda buys his way into Formula 1 racing, and instead of leaving Hunt in a lower division, it gives Hunt and his backers the idea to do the same thing. Lauda begins to prove himself by redesigning the car he’ll be driving, finding ways to make the car lighter and faster, while Hunt trusts in the idea that his own lack of fear will allow him to push harder, to race without any sense of self-preservation.

What makes “Rush” great as a character study is that Peter Morgan resists the temptation to make one of them the hero over the other one. This is not a movie about heroes and villains. It’s a film about competition and what it is that drives people to do something as insane as Formula 1. Both Hunt and Lauda are shown early on to have serious deficiencies as people, but what they lack in some areas, they more than make up in the part of the brain that makes them racers. These guys live for that moment when they’re jammed into those little cars, tear-assing around a track, knowing full well that one mistakes mean you die. The consequences of mistakes are shown in graphic detail here, and emotionally, the film is smart in the way it presents these men. Lauda is humanized by his relationship with Marlene, the woman who becomes his wife, and Alexandra Maria Lara gives a warm, nuanced performance, showing us why she might fall in love with a man who works so hard to push others away. Hunt, on the other hand, can’t make relationships last, and that seems to go hand in hand with his need to constantly push things. He thrives on chaos, and while we can see that he cares about Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) and an earlier girlfriend Gemma (Natalie Dormer), he’s not built for monogamy. He’s just too wild and unbroken inside.

There’s also something compelling about realizing that the film doesn’t hinge on trying to create suspense about who does or doesn’t win the race. Instead, this is a film about recognizing that sometimes, your greatest rival can also be your greatest motivation. Neither of these men would have been as great as they were without the other one constantly pushing them, and It’s such a different approach to telling this sort of story that it threw me at first. Once I realized what Morgan and Howard were doing, I was onboard completely, and they pay off that faith with a film that doesn’t talk down to its audience at all, and that requires no knowledge of the sport or the true-life story to be positively riveting.

Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is fantastic here. I may not be a Formula 1 fan, but I feel like I finally understand the appeal. The film is cut brilliantly by Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill, and Mark Digby’s production design evokes the ’70s without wallowing in them. Hans Zimmer’s score supports the film beautifully, all dynamics and tension. This might be the most technically complicated and most polished film that Howard has ever made. If you’re a fan of racing at all, or if you just want to see a great story about what drives people past the point where most of us would break, “Rush” is powerful storytelling, and a real high watermark for Ron Howard.

“Rush” opens in theaters September 27, 2013.