Monday, September 30, 2013

RUSH Is Sweeping Sports Movie Gold

RUSH Review:

- RUSH really surprised me. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that a big, high-gloss Ron Howard movie delivered the goods, but hey, I guess it's been a while since Ron Howard really delivered a true knockout punch. Of late, I've thought of him more as the guy who does the DaVinci Code movies and pops up in self-effacing cameos on Arrested Development. But man, Rush is the return of the Howard who did riveting yet humanistic films like Apollo 13. If you've been on the fence about checking it out, I highly recommend that you give it a shot - Rush is not just a return to greatness for Howard, but one of the most impactful and well-crafted movies of the year so far.

Rush is based on a real-life story, but it wasn't one that I was at all familiar with going in. I suspect that others will have the same initial reaction as I did: wondering how appealing a movie about F1 racing can be if you're not particularly into racing. But the story here is one that's much more universal - because Rush is the story of a great rivalry. In this case, the rivalry between brash, fast-living, thrill-seeking British F1 racer James Hunt, and precise, steely, calculating Austrian racer Niki Lauda. It's a classic sports duel, with contrasting personalities and ethos - but eventually, with grudging respect - that reminded me of the likes of Bird vs. Magic. The difference here is that the two racers don't just compete - they put their lives on the line every time they strap into their souped-up cars.

What makes Rush's story so compelling is that the races really do become about life and death - when Lauda is horrifically injured in a near-fatal crash. Lauda however - a driven a competitor - works his way back from the brink and re-enters into the ongoing competition, despite emerging from his crash with painful and disfiguring burns.

So let me talk for a second about Daniel Bruhl, who plays Niki Lauda. He's phenomenal in the film. What struck me was how Lauda initially comes across as the "villain" of the movie. Afterall, he's the prickly one, the weaselly one, the obvious black knight to Hunt's heroic white knight. But soon enough, the movie shows that this isn't a black-and-white tale at all. Behind Lauda's prickliness we see a fierce competitor and a complex man. The kind of man who isn't typically painted as a hero - but who, in his own way, displays courage and heroism. Bruhl knocks it out of the park - he makes Lauda a nuanced character that keeps emotion bottled-up, but who has a steely resolve to keep moving forward. He doesn't like Hunt's swagger and showmanship. To Lauda, racing is about science, precision, and technique. Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth is also quite good as James Hunt. A racing rockstar, his Hunt is a guy who takes full advantage of the perks of fame and fortune. But again, the movie is too smart for one-dimensional characters. As the movie goes on, Hunt grows increasingly weary of his life of excess, and increasingly finds a comradery in Lauda and a respect for him. Hemsworth shows himself to be a guy capable of playing much more complex characters than we've seen from him previously.

Ron Howard smartly spends considerable time building up both characters - generally keeping them out of each others' orbits except for select moments. There's some outstanding character work here - and the way the script devotes time to showing us Lauda and Hunt's vastly different worlds makes it all the more powerful when those worlds collide.

If there is a fault with the film, it's that the movie can't seem to decide just how much time to spend on the women in Hunt and Lauda's lives. Olivia Wilde plays Hunt's wife Suzy, and there is some compelling conflict and turmoil in their relationship. But Wilde drifts in and out of the film, and so some of the drama surrounding her feels forced. She's there just enough to feel like she's *supposed* to be a major character, but not enough to feel like she actually is. Handled slightly better is Alexandra Maria Lara's depiction of Lauda's wife, Marlene. Marlene fits in more organically with the story, because her relationship with Niki triggers in him a new fear of death that affects his racing. The two also have a courtship that's really well-written and fun. Still, Marlene also occasionally drifts out of the picture, and doesn't quite feel like a fully-realized character.

That said, the character work on Hunt and, in particular, Lauda, is so good that it's easy to overlook everything else. What's more, Ron Howard really directs the hell out of this movie. He gives the entire film an epic, sweeping feel. But he also makes it sexier and more rock n' roll that any film he's done to date. There are certain sequences that feel a little edgier, a little more experimental, and a little more avant garde than what we've come to expect from Howard - and that prevent Rush from feeling like *just* an aspirational Oscar-bait movie. Plus, the racing sequences are extremely well-done - edge-of-your-seat and visceral. Howard makes sure that the racing feels dangerous. You come away from those scenes wondering "who in their right mind would do this for sport?" And that's exactly the question the movie wants you to ponder.

I'll also mention that the film has a really great score from Hans Zimmer. Zimmer really heightens the emotion of the film and provides an added dimension to the action.

The great Bill Simmons called Rush the best sports movie in years, and I'm inclined to agree. It dramatizes the competitive drive of athletes in a way that few films have ever fully captured. And it brings to life an epic - but little known to modern audiences - rivalry in applause-worthy fashion. Daniel Bruhl deserves to be on awards lists come Oscar time, and Ron Howard deserves kudos for this creative comeback.

My Grade: A-

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