Ron Howard's last collaboration with screenwriter Peter Morgan yielded the drama Frost/Nixon, a charged battle of wits between a cheery, charismatic Brit who found himself outmatched by a cagey, brilliant opponent on a field of rhetoric.
In the latest Howard/Morgan production, Rush (based on the lives of two legendary '70s racing drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda), that dynamic is very much in play, albeit with less chatter and more roaring engines. To the outward eye, this is a Formula One racing movie seemingly designated for any stray Fast & Furious fans seeking a little substance.
(That perception isn't wrong either. Howard has a history with movies that go vroom-vroom, from his 1977 directing debut Grand Theft Auto to his forgettable 2011 comedy The Dilemma, in which two auto engineers actually spend an entire movie trying to put a combustion engine's vroom-vroom into an electric car.)
The charismatic Brit in this movie is James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). In the mid-'70s, he is a proto-party animal who seems to have fallen into Grand Prix racing because it entails tumbling into bed with whatever willing female is available. Early in the movie, a bloody Hunt shows up in a hospital emergency room and promptly is, ahem, attended to by the attending nurse.
In Hunt's style of rapacious romanticism, women are turned on by the deadly nature of auto racing and he tends to freely take advantage of that phenomenon.
His opposite number is the Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brºhl), a racer who fits the stereotype of the icy, methodical Teuton with no regard for the emotions of others. In the movie, this quality is played for a kind of refreshing outrageousness, as when he test-drives a Ferrari race car and bluntly tells its affronted engineer that it handles "like a pig."
The film proceeds as a kind of double-pronged biopic. When Hunt finally falls for a woman, gorgeous fashion model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), their wedded bliss looks to have the short shelf life of the typical '70s celebrity union. When the decidedly unlovable Lauda manages to snag the beautiful Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara), it is a relationship that looks to last, at least for the purposes of the film. (In reality, it just took a bit longer to fail.)
The two men become champions and rivals. Their styles are radically different. Hunt is funded by his flighty-wealthy sponsor Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay) and pretty much hopes for the best car money can buy. The hands-on Lauda funds his own career via bank loans and cracks the whip on his engineers and mechanics to do his precise bidding. The charisma gap between these two men is the width of the Grand Canyon.
The twist comes in the 1976 German Grand Prix race in which Lauda was badly burned in a crash brought on by terrible track conditions. The event spurs a transition in the relationship, an understanding, if not a reconciliation, that provides a solid dramatic underpinning to this film's impressively mounted racing action.
To this end, Hemsworth gets to demonstrate a glib charm that marks a departure from the comparatively stolid heroism of his Thor. But performance-wise, Brºhl edges ahead with a compelling portrayal of a repellent competitor.
Of course, Rush delivers the vroom-vroom goods too, but with a scaled-back style that eschews Fast & Furious visual bombast in favour of an intimate, racer's-eye-level experience of Formula One that is both exciting and scary.