RUSH Review: Somebody Call A Tow Truck
I had a job once (in Corporate America) where management was so focused on quantitative results that they ignored qualitative output. We had work to do, we had a monthly numeric goal to meet related to that work, and that was the extent of the discussion. Among a few of us, this came to be known as the “Gung Ho Strategy.” The reference is to the 1986 film Gung Ho, starring Michael Keaton, where a US auto manufacturing plant, in an effort to prove something to its new Japanese owners, must build a certain number of cars by a certain date. When the Japanese bosses arrive on that date, they find that the number has been achieved … at least in quantity. As for the quality of the cars, it’s eventually discovered that one car has no engine, another has no windshield, another falls to pieces as it’s being driven away, and so forth.
Gung Ho was directed by Ron Howard, who also directs Rush, a car-centric film of another kind. Rush reminds me of Gung Ho in that the new film, like the cars in Michael Keaton’s lot, looks like it meets all of the requirements on first glance, but when you get around to lifting the hood … there’s nothing there.
Based on a true story, Rush recounts the fierce rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). It opens in the middle of the 1976 racing season but quickly flashes back to 1970, when the two drivers were on the rise on the Formula Three racing circuit (think minor leagues). We learn quickly that each driver races very differently.
Lauda is The Perfectionist. He is cold to the point of having almost no friends, but calculating to the point of having almost no flaws. He dominates with logic, and he is intimate with every inch of his car and every curve of the track.
Hunt is The Playboy. He is popular to the point of having almost too many friends, and reckless to the point of having almost no chance. He dominates with instinct, and he is intimate with every inch of a pretty girl’s face and every curve of her body.
The men rise through the circuit ranks together, constantly pushing each other to drive faster, drive better. Their rivalry becomes the stuff of legends until, in “present day” 1976, a terrible crash in terrible driving conditions leaves Lauda horribly burned and fighting for his life. With his main rival off the track, the season championship is Hunt’s to claim, until a stunning turn of events has the racing world holding its breath.
The racing world may have been holding its breath, but I certainly wasn’t holding mine. In what appears to be an effort by Howard to create a film that acts as a simultaneous dramatization of, and witness to, history, all without a commentary on that history, the director fails to create a rooting interest in anyone. This is the greatest sin a sports film can commit. Think about it: when you watch a sporting event, you are either rooting FOR someone or AGAINST someone. Sports films are no different. Without that rooting interest, watching a sporting event – or a sports film – becomes nothing more than an exercise in wasting time.
Part of this problem with the film has to do with Howard’s overly repetitious reminders – even in the film’s final scenes – of the differences between the two drivers, from compare/contrast montages of each driver’s daily and nightly lives to how each driver celebrates a victory; or from Lauda’s intellectual proletariat racing approach to Hunt’s only-stop-the-party-to-drive-the-car lifestyle. We get it. Hunt is a rock star and Lauda disapproves; Lauda is a scientist and Hunt disapproves. The only thing they have in common is telling each other how much the other one is doing it wrong. The quest for parity is incessant and doesn’t just stop with them. The polarity of how opposite they are goes right down to their wives.
About those wives: it’s impossible to care about them, too.
Mrs. Hunt, the former Suzie Miller, played by the FABULOUSLY dressed and coiffed Olivia Wilde, makes only four key appearances in the film: when she and Hunt meet, when they marry, when they argue, and when they split. It’s hard enough to feel sympathy for the demise of a relationship between the brutally handsome and the terminally pretty because you know they’ve got people waiting in the wings (for him it’s the next Racer Chaser; for her it’s Richard Burton … yes, THAT Richard Burton). It’s harder still when the relationship is presented in a length of time equal to about a lap-and-a-half at Watkins Glen.
Marlene Lauda (Alexandra Maria Lara), after a brief spark when she and Niki first meet, is relegated to Stand By Your Man status, with a silent demeanor so matronly she could be confused for Mrs. Lauda the Mother, not Mrs. Lauda the Wife. There is one brief scene on their honeymoon when she is swimming topless, I suppose to evidence the fact that Lauda was capable of scoring with a flesh-and-blood girl like Hunt, and not just some garage creation built for minimum wind resistance.
Of the cast, I thought Brühl was quite good. He’s the least sexy person – by a mile – in a sport that is sexy by construct (fast cars, hot girls, and what not), and he manages to portray the perpetually socially-awkward Lauda as perpetually one step shy of creepy. In another film, Lauda might have been driving a windowless van instead of a race car. Hemsworth is good too, although he’s not overly challenged in the role. (I find myself resisting the urge to ask how hard it can be for an Adonis to portray an Adonis; I know that’s unfair. But still.) The actresses playing the spouses are perfectly fine given what little challenge they have.
Without a hero or villain, or even a sympathetic love interest, to root for, all that remains are the film’s racing sequences. Aside from some dazzling close-ups of engine parts and the mechanical like, the racing sequences leave something to be desired. It’s not that you don’t get a “you are there” sense; you do. The problem, I think, is two-fold. The first is the film’s editing. You might be behind the wheel and screaming around a hairpin turn, but before you can really feel that intensity, you cut to feet on the pedals, then cut to a hand changing gears, then back to the feet, then at ground level watching the car whiz by and grass fly through the air in the car’s wake. The camera never stays with one racing shot long enough to let you experience that … well, that rush.
The second goes back to what plagues the overall story: no rooting interest. There is a long-running joke that people only watch car races in hopes of seeing a crash. There’s truth in that jest because the peril in which real people in real-time place themselves is compelling. In a movie, because it isn’t real people in real time, the interest must come from being invested in one character who could possibly suffer in a crash. Because there is no interest here, the crashing cars might as well be Autobots.
Ron Howard knows his way around directing car movies (Gung Ho, 1977’s Grand Theft Auto), and he knows his way around directing compelling characters in peril – both fictional (1991’s Backdraft) and factual (1995’s Apollo 13). With Rush, though, Howard simply fails to successfully combine the two disciplines. For my obligatory pun, the film isn’t stuck in the pits, but it certainly doesn’t find the winner’s circle, either.