Rush is a pair of excellent lead performances trying in vain to save a dull, messy, uninteresting movie.
How far can a pair of fantastic lead performances go towards saving an otherwise dull, messy and uninteresting movie? That, above all else, seems to be the question that Rush is most determined to answer. Make no mistake, however, this is absolutely not at all the fault of the source material. In its best years, Formula 1 can be an exceptionally gripping sport, the kind that can hold your attention all year long as various exciting narratives naturally crop up (2012, for example, had 7 different drivers win the first 7 races, Sebastian Vettel wildly underperforming for the first half of the season and the intense rivalry between McLaren teammates Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton) and the 1976 James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda season was perhaps the pinnacle season of the motorsport in terms of competitiveness, drama and pure excitement to watch. It’s actually quite surprising that it wasn’t adapted into a movie sooner, everything you need for a good sports film is in that very season.
When I was a child, obsessed with Formula 1, I used to read a tonne of books on the sport and Hunt/Lauda especially stuck out to me. I got goosebumps just reading about it. The story, even in book form, is an extremely gripping yarn, so this was pretty high on my most anticipated films of the year list; imagine seeing the Hunt/Lauda story in motion on the big screen! That’s why it absolutely pains me to have to write this review, because Rush is a crushing disappointment with the single thing keeping it from being an outright failure being the exceptional lead performances of Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl.
In fact, let’s talk about the lead performances now, because it prevents me from having to list the reasons not to see Rush for a bit. Chris Hemsworth is James Hunt, Daniel Brühl is Niki Lauda. Both are racing car drivers who first cross paths in Formula 3. Hunt is the showboating playboy who has a tonne of natural driving talent and charisma coming out of his arse but lacks discipline and is quite a hothead; Lauda is the dedicated technician who is a genius at setting up the car in order to get every last bit of power out of it but is kind of an insufferably smug arse about his talents. Needless to say, neither gets on well with the other and a natural rivalry is formed, one that intensifies greatly once the pair buy their way into Formula 1 and one that reaches a head in the legendary 1976 season.
Obviously, Hemsworth is a complete natural at the cocky playboy side of Hunt. After all, Hemsworth, much like Hunt, oozes charisma at of his arse and even though his womanising, devil-may-care attitude can be seen as pompous and arrogant, Hemsworth is easily capable of winning you over anyway, with a charming smile and a quick self-assured quip. But Hunt had more going on than that, and so too does Hemsworth. Hunt, like most overly-confident pretty boys, is deeply rattled and shook whenever he’s not on top or something goes horribly wrong and Hemsworth is able to convey that kind of uncertainty in just a subtle change of his facial expression (good thing too, because the script shoves a lot of this to the sidelines). Yes, there are the moments where he has to dramatically vomit in fear or learn against something in a tortured manner, but he’s just as adept at making those seem naturalistic instead of forced as he is at the subtler beats (such as the constant flicking of his cigarette lighter).
Take, for example, one of two scenes where Hunt has to confront the reality of his failing marriage to Olivia Wilde (who appears in three scenes total and makes almost zilch of an impression). This comes at a rough time in his career and he’s hitting the bottle excessively. The script is practically screaming for Hemsworth to cut loose and chew some scenery as an angry drunkard having a row with his wife. Hemsworth (and, to her credit, Wilde) decides to go against that. He instead plays Hunt as a broken man, in this scene. A quietly broken man who has lost his purpose in life but is way too drunk to make a wild scene out of it, instead just moping about bladdered out of his mind, feeling sorry for himself. It’s that kind of acting level that Hemsworth operates at for the whole film, neither under or over-acting, imbuing Hunt with three-dimensions and life that the film itself would rather suck out at the first available opportunity.
The same goes for fast-rising talent Daniel Brühl. Lauda gets less overt material than Hunt but Brühl excels at it, managing to make him a very likable and sympathetic guy even in the face of his enormous ego (the film puts Lauda’s ego on about the same level as Hunt’s). Much like Hunt, Lauda hates to lose but, unlike Hunt, actually cares about the big picture; his safety, the risk involved, how the rest of the season might go. Brühl is much more understated at portraying Lauda’s quirks and traits than Hemsworth, but it’s still a performance that manages to work, buoyed as it is by the lightning chemistry the pair share whenever they have to interact. And when Lauda suffers a tragic setback late in the season (which I won’t spoil, although every single trailer already has), Brühl finally gets to come into his own, managing to expertly portray the pain and suffering that Lauda was going through, but also the resolve and determination he had in the face of said pain and suffering in a way that the script simply doesn’t even attempt to.
These are a pair of incredible performances and a better film would have these incredible performances anchor the rest of the movie. Unfortunately for Rush, these performances are the only thing that is propping up the rest of the film because it’s kind of a terrible mess. The cause of said mess can come down to three very clear factors: a heavily-inconsistent and messy screenplay, pedestrian direction and an extremely overbearing score.
The screenplay, courtesy of Peter Morgan who has collaborated with director Ron Howard before on the uneven Frost/Nixon, is incredibly unsure of what exactly it is that it wants to do. Covering the six years between Hunt and Lauda’s first meeting in Formula 3 and the pre-season testing of 1977, this is a script that seems far more interested in the James Hunt and Niki Lauda that existed outside of racing rather than the rivalry itself; all but two of the races in that 1976 season are relegated to a brief text-based mention in various montages. That might have been OK if the screenplay could have made up for it by making those parts off the track interesting and entertaining; but it’s far too overstuffed and too sluggishly paced to remain so for more than five minutes at a time.
It relies too much on cliché, trite or just plain boring dialogue (quite frankly, it’s a bloody miracle that Hemsworth and Brühl were capable of mustering up any chemistry seeing as the most intelligent their characters’ snipes at each other get is Hunt repeatedly calling Lauda a “rat”) and sequences that are way too on-the-nose for their own good; instead of finishing at a very natural climax, the film drags itself onwards for another 10 minutes, just to further hammer home the point that Hunt and Lauda aren’t so different – and, if I’m not mistaken, the film even gets Lauda to state it out loud as if to say “HEY! MORON VIEWER! HAVE YOU GOT THE POINT YET?!”
It takes far too long to get to the actual meat of the story, the rivalry itself, and the stuff outside of that meat is wholly unengaging. The supporting cast are almost totally under-developed (in the case of Hunt and Lauda’s respective women) or just plain cartoony (I’m still not totally convinced that Hunt’s early manager didn’t accidentally wander in from a completely different movie), it spends too little time on things that matter (the consequences of the end-of-second-act-beat-that-I’m-refusing-to-spoil-but-every-single-trailer-and-advert-has-already-decided-to-do-anyway are glossed over in a five minute montage; not kidding) and has a very nasty habit of just having characters tell the audience about stuff that’s happened instead of actually showing said stuff. In the second of those marriage-breakdown sequences, Olivia Wilde’s character complains that Hunt drinks too much, does too many drugs, is too committed to his job and cheats on her frequently, but we never actually see Hunt do any of these things during the course of his marriage. The film believes that, because you’ve seen Hunt do some of these things prior to the marriage, you’ll never have expected him to stop doing them and just take its word for it.
Honestly, the fact that the passage of time is frequently impossible to accurately calculate unless you’re already intimately familiar with the story (due to the lack of, and just plain random placement of, date stamps) is one of my lesser complaints about this dreadful screenplay. It’s a testament to the acting abilities of Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl that they are almost able to single-handedly elevate the screenplay to something at least half-decent, but it’s an even greater testament to the poorness of the screenplay that two master performances by gifted actors can’t lift it to something it’s not.
The screenplay, however, is not completely to blame for the failings of Rush. Guilt should also be administered to director Ron Howard, as well, for working at the level of the screenplay and nothing more. Although the feel of the period is spot-on; the film lacks pace, taking far too long to get going and even then kind of just sauntering to the finish line. Unless anything exciting in regards to character drama or racing is threatening to occur, in which case we rocket past it without a care in the world. Interactions between characters, and particularly during the pre-Nurbürgring driver’s meeting that Lauda sets up, are filmed with no flair or style, often it seems like the camera was just plonked down in front of an actor in order to record them reciting dialogue, which does not help the pacing at all. During most of these sequences, I sat impatiently tapping my fingers waiting for the racing to begin.
And then the racing started and I regretted my desire to want it. What races that aren’t casually dismissed in a montage are incompetently done. Despite the Formula 1 of the 70s being extremely dangerous (in every single year in the 70s, at least one driver died in an F1 race), racing sequences in Rush have no stakes, tension or danger instilled in them, instead being executed with the same languid pace as the rest of the movie. There is no sense of speed anywhere, most glaringly of all during the Nurbürgring incident which should be utterly terrifying and tense but, actually, elicits the exact same non-reaction that the rest of the film does. Do you want to know how inept this film is at extracting tension from its racing sequences? It screws up pit-stops. Twice during this film, characters have to make a time-critical pit-stop with the outcome of the race on the line and both times Howard treats them like someone on a leisurely drive who has been mildly inconvenienced by a red light. You don’t need to be an F1 fan to know that failing to draw legitimate tension out of that kind of situation is just a plain failure on the director’s part.
Oh, and don’t get me started on the abysmal CG and green-screening that goes on during 80% of these races. I know that, due to the way that F1 cars were built back in the day, asking the film to go all practical on its effects would be inviting a bunch of stuntmen to an early grave, but you could have attempted to sink some money and effort into the CG. Instead, it’s extremely unconvincing and unnatural, something that the film attempts to hide by shaking the camera over-excessively and combining them both with incoherent editing. Funnily enough, that just makes a bad situation worse. There is one scene, and I am not kidding here, where a successful overtake of Lauda by Hunt is purposefully covered by a pan across a tree.
Finally, there’s the insufferable score provided by Hans Zimmer which is, in a word, overbearing. Every single scene is backed in one of three ways: heavy-handed, overly sombre and overly nostalgic strings and piano chords (designed to manipulate you into finding a scene either The Saddest Thing Ever or to make you wistful for this bygone era where men were men); intense and action-centric synth bass with deep horns and rousing strings (designed to make any sequence, however innocuous such as Lauda brainstorming ways to improve the car, equivalent to that of a Jason Bourne movie) or a licensed classic rock track (for when the film wants to remind you that you’re watching a period piece). And it is relentless. Almost every scene is backed by a score that takes the same over-the-top, go-for-broke approach, regardless of whether it fits the situation or not. You’d think the racing sequences would at least be safe from this, the roar of the various engines should more than suffice in terms of getting the audience pumped up… but no, there it is, plugging away in the background, fading in and out of your attention every few seconds.
Sigh… it legitimately depresses to have to write this review. I desperately wanted Rush to be good, great even! A film that would launch stars Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl as Serious Actors, give Ron Howard a long overdue W in the win column when it comes to directing films and accurately portray the thrill and danger of Formula 1 racing back in the time of one of motorsport’s most seminal feuds. Instead, Rush is a pair of exceptional lead performances desperately struggling to find a better movie to attach themselves to. Rather than accurately portray what Formula 1 is really like, the film itself instead embodies the stereotype that everybody believes the sport to be: overly drawn-out, aimless and thuddingly, soul-crushingly dull.