Ron Howard was right. “Rush,” opening Friday, is one of his more entertaining and accomplished films.
I might even go so far as to say it’s the best Grand Prix auto racing film I’ve ever seen. But then all that means is that its only real competition would be John Frankenheimer’s apparent 1966 template for “Rush” called “Grand Prix” that starred James Garner, Yves Montand, Eva Marie Saint, Toshiro Mifune and Brian Bedford, a quantum leap in casting over the more modest names on the marquee of “Rush” – Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl and Olivia Wilde. It, too, raced along with two competitors from bedroom to track to hospital.
“Rush” is exciting. And sexy. And full of the luxe and grime and grease and physical terror of Grand Prix auto racing. (One of its two principals throws up before every race. Shades of Jim Kelly with his Super Bowl Bills in their history-making serial performances.)
It is full of liquids being spilled indiscriminately in a kind of popular vision of that wonderful year 1976 – principally champagne, oil and gas and bodily fluids.
And that is Howard’s triumph, what he was right about.
The reason he was right is simple: He had financial trouble making this one. He had to arrange a good chunk of its financing himself, which is not really supposed to be the case with a film director who has Howard’s track record (if you’ll pardon the expression). He didn’t get a simple, “yes, of course.”
And that’s no doubt because of some lesser recent films (“The Dilemma”), but also because Grand Prix racing for all its international glamor and kinetic visual orgies for a camera-loving filmmaker, is a recondite subject to put it mildly. It’s almost as obscure as the cerebral functions and dysfunctions of “A Beautiful Mind.”
It’s great to watch in two hours of periodic nudity and fancy European locations (obviously “The Da Vinci Code” whetted Howard’s appetite for European exteriors). And what Howard proved here is that you don’t need to follow the sport to be with the stars during every gear change and every pit stop.
It’s about the real mid-’70s Formula One rivalry between studly Scottish driver James Hunt and Austria’s Niki Lauda, two temperamental, physical and mental opposites who jumped up from Formula Three competition into Formula One dominance.
The absurdly handsome Hemsworth – who will again play Thor in your local movie theater soon – stars as Hunt and looks like a male model buddy of Fabio’s. The breathtakingly beautiful Wilde plays his wife, Suzy, who coped with his rejections and strayings by finding a bewitched, bothered and bewildered Richard Burton and marrying him after they both got free.
Racetrack gossips liked to pass along the information that Hunt was even more of a bedroom athlete than he was a racetrack champ.
Bruhl plays Lauda, the saturnine, all-business type who uses his self-discipline to make mincemeat of everyone else.
When Lauda’s brain tells him that one rain-sloshed race on an already dangerous track is too perilous to drive in, he’s right. He competes in the race anyway because of the rivalry and the result is a near-catastrophe for him. It is, of course, life changing.
And that, I say, is the problem with “Rush.” It is great to look at in every second whether you’re watching beautiful people or roaring, thundering race cars. And the true story of Hunt and Lauda has built-in suspense, as does any sporting tale. (Peter Morgan, who wrote “The Queen” and Howard’s “Nixon/Frost” wrote the script.)
But don’t bother asking – or even thinking for a second – about where such polar personalities and minds came from. The movie, essentially, couldn’t possibly care less.
When you get down to what ironic people still sometimes called “the nitty gritty” in 1976, “Rush” can’t really shake the essential brainlessness of all rivalries, as if the only way excellence or even dominance on its own ever happens is by measuring one’s self against a despised Other.
It’s as if the Howard who gave us “A Beautiful Mind” and even “The Da Vinci Code” were somehow ashamed of his artistic reach and decided only to do what was within his cinematic grasp. It’s as if he got tired of the human brain and decided to make a film that’s almost completely for the human eye instead.
At the age of 59, he again felt secure being the super-annuated teen he so often was before, albeit with a great deal more cinematographic skill.
“Rush” is enjoyable to watch, to be sure. To get real, though, for a second, there wasn’t a “Beautiful Mind” within 100 miles of this film. If Howard had been my friend, I might have advised against making it, too.