You don’t have to be a race fan to enjoy Ron Howard’s take on the rivalry between James Hunt and Andreas “Niki” Lauda in the 1976 Formula One championship season. In fact, it’s possible to consider the series of races a pretty silly business, given the inherent and unnecessary danger they pose, and yet still find “Rush” a winner, even if it sputters occasionally in its progress around the track.
Actually the script—another literate gloss on actual events by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”)—introduces the two men before the year of their down-to-the-wire competition. As shown here, Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a carefree though ambitious hedonist, happily taking risks on and off the track while depending on the financial reserves of his aristocratic backer (Christian McKay), as well as his own talent, to lift him out of the lower racing division into the big time. Hunt is the polar opposite of Lauda, an intense Austrian who defies his father to pursue his dream, putting his own financial future at stake in the process. As obsessively pragmatic as Hunt is wildly intuitive, he’s also socially inept in contrast to Hunt’s easy companionability, bluntly telling others the truth as he sees it and offending whomever he talks to in the process. Needless to say, they rub one another the wrong way from the start, and the animosity builds after Hunt nearly causes a crash with a reckless move against Lauda in a race.
It doesn’t take long before both men effectively buy their way into Formula One placement, and both find romance—Hunt with supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), whose career soon causes strain in their marriage (along, of course, with his off-track activities), and Lauda with aristocratic Marlena Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara), who gives up her independence to become a supportive wife. But their main interest continue to be on their cars, and in the series of grueling races that together determine the contestants’ place on the roster, Lauda goes significantly ahead, until a terrible accident intervenes.
The rest is history, of course, but since it’s a story not every viewer will know, it would be churlish to reveal too much of it here. Suffice it to say it involves an excruciating period of recuperation, shown here in quite graphic detail, an astonishing comeback, and the development of a grudging friendship in the aftermath of competition. And Howard doesn’t skimp on expanding the film with archival material that provides information on the two men’s later lives. Though the picture loses steam in the sections dealing with the men’s domestic lives—the segments about Miller’s flirtations with other men, including Richard Burton, especially come across as glossy soap opera—for the most part Morgan and Howard make the right choices.
Throughout Howard and his pit team—headed by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and an expert visual effects crew supervised by Jody Johnson—succeed in making the racing footage almost palpably exciting, abetted in no small measure by the razor-sharp editing of Dan Hanley and Mike Hill and Hans Zimmer’s insistent score. That’s an important part of the film’s success, but the action would be of little interest unless the piece were character-driven as well. Hemsworth has the easier job, since the extrovert Hunt seems a natural fit with his exuberant personality. Lauda is the greater challenge, particularly since Bruhl must play him with a set of prominent false teeth that give him—as with the man in real life—a rodent-like appearance that racing enthusiasts freely ridiculed. But even behind makeup that would have done Lon Chaney proud, he gives a stunning performance, capturing the passion that simmers beneath the apparently cool, calculating exterior and the indomitability that marked his character. The remainder of the cast—even Wilde and Lara—are definitely spectators in the stands, as it were, but they all do what’s demanded of them (which basically consists of watching Hemsworth and Bruhl strut their stuff) more than satisfactorily.
Howard’s film delivers the adrenaline rush the title promises, but thankfully it does more than that, providing an engrossing—and ultimately stirring—human story as well. There’s plenty of speed and action here, but “Fast and Furious 7” this certainly is not. And while that might limit its boxoffice take, in terms of quality it’s something for which serious filmgoers can breathe a sigh of relief.