Sept. 25 2013 11:37 AM

Ron Howard's tiresome racecar drama is high on competition, masculine posturing

Manly men Chris Hemsworth (left) and Daniel Br?hl
In the expository-heavy early moments of Rush, arrogant racecar driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) explains why he's so good in bed: "The closer you are to death, the closer you are to life. Women can smell it on you." It's the sort of clichéd masculine nonsense one might expect from a young lad high on his own ego.

Strangely, the film never proves him wrong: Hunt sleeps with countless women and never blinks an eye; the cost of his philandering is hinted at only vaguely. Even worse, his one "long-term" relationship with a posh British model (Olivia Wilde) is treated like an inconvenient narrative afterthought.

Problematic characterizations plague Ron Howard's bland 1970s-set Formula 1 biopic about the British bad boy and his rivalry with Austrian wunderkind Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Not only do the women in both men's lives seem more like background drapes than characters; honest relationships of any kind are sacrificed in the name of sport.

Maybe Hunt's narcissism makes confronting his own self-destructive nature impossible. Or perhaps Lauda's meticulousness is too fortified, leaving no room for his complexity to breath. Either way, the film creates very little feeling beyond the surface of booming engines, blasting cylinders and screeching tires. All that matters is competition, the kind of masculine posturing that undoubtedly leads to self-destruction and collateral damage.

Despite its horrendous views on gender, Rush deftly balances the madness and respect the two leads inspire in each other. Brühl's surgeon-like exactness plays well against Hunt's brazen flair. As they face off against each other in races around the world, there's a sense of instinctual chest thumping that grows from the gas fumes almost organically. Both men create increased risk by engaging in this rivalry, knowing that, in a way, the sport wouldn't be as thrilling without their shared melodrama.

As written by British scribe Peter Morgan (known for his infatuation with historical simplicity), Rush attempts to reconstruct a lively era where Formula 1 drivers were akin to superheroes, risking  their lives every time on the track. Multiple frames contain equal parts gloss and grain, haloed lighting and striking shadows. This style elevates the artificiality of the story, always reinforcing the fact that the audience is watching a heightened and staged vision of history.

To his credit, Howard shoots the action scenes consistently from a ground-level vantage point, forcing the audience into the cramped cockpit of each car. Some of these sequences are genuinely harrowing, as in the final showdown between Lauda and Hunt at the foot of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The rain is so thick that one can barely make out the cars from a birds-eye-view, save for the smoke billowing upward.

Still, for a film about one of the most visually kinetic sports, Rush doesn't feel entirely dangerous. Howard imposes graphics and text over the race scenes in order to cover more historical ground through montage, which consistently stunts the film's momentum. Not only is the technique distracting from the story's inherent emotional intensity; it also blatantly reveals the most wooden parts of the biopic genre.

Thinking about these unfortunate stylistic decisions made my mind wander a bit (surprisingly, since the sound design is deafening). I thought about what the late Tony Scott would have done with this material. In his hands, each scene (on and off the track) might have felt like a thrilling, life-or-death race of some kind, breathless in ways Howard would never have conceived. But I guess we'll always have Days of Thunder. 

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