I have a crazy hunch that Rush, about two real-life Formula One racers locking wheels and horns in 1976, may be the combustible, cheer-worthy surprise it is because director Ron Howard almost didn't have the money to shoot the damn races. The early cash crisis forced screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen), who came up aces with Howard on Frost/Nixon, to structure the script as the scariest thing known to Hollywood bottom-liners: a character study. Two rivals, Brit playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and by-the-book Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), would engage in a hardcore war of psyches. As it turns out, Howard's relatively low $30 million budget did allow Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) to shoot a series of racing sequences. And they're killer. But it's Morgan's core script, full of humor, heartache and verbal fireworks, that lifts Rush above the Fast & Furious herd.
Free from the banal duties of filming Dan Brown pot-boilers (The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons), Howard scores big in the spirit of the risk junkies in his film. Though 1977's Grand Theft Auto, Howard's directing debut, had car crashes to spare, Rush burns on a high flame of danger, sex and unexpected gravitas. Working fast, loose and indie looks good on Howard, who's on top of his game. His toughest hurdle might be the indifference of U.S. audiences, who purr for NASCAR, toward Formula One. Hell, in this case, ignorance really is bliss, since Howard and Morgan lay out the F1 groundwork with a hypnotic skill hot enough to seduce the most rabid race-car haters.
Plus, the two lead actors could not be better. Hemsworth, the Aussie best known for playing the stolid Norse god Thor, is revelatory as Hunt. He gets under the skin of a stud who gets o by bedding babes, be it a nurse (Natalie or a model (a live-wire Olivia Wilde), but who knows charisma is useless once he puts on his helmet. Hunt pukes before every race. And when he marries said model, Suzy Miller, he's floored when she dumps him for Richard Burton. Hemsworth nails every vulnerable nuance of this conflicted charm boy. He's terrific.
And Brühl, the Spanish-born German actor who excelled in Inglourious Basterds, starts at brilliant and revs up from there. Lauda, with his ferret teeth and anal need for control, is the anti-romantic, yet he wins the love of Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), an acid-tongued beauty who sees what the world doesn't. That would be resilience, especially after a near-fatal accident leaves him badly burned and su ering the loss of an ear and his eyebrows. Lauda is down but never out, and Brühl shows us why without going soft on the character.
And so Rush, following the lead of Senna, Asif Kapadia's 2010 documentary about the legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, emerges as one of the great racing films ever. Why? Because as cars spin and shimmer in the rain at the climactic and astounding Grand Prix in Japan, we never lose sight of what's human and striving behind the wheel.