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There comes a time in every critic's life when you find yourself going against the tide of opinion, set adrift by your inability to appreciate something everyone else is gaga for. It is a very different feeling than liking something everyone else despises. But as I gaze upon the 90% positive or so rating on Rotten Tomatoes, all I can do is take a deep breath and say, "My name is Susan and I am a 'Rush' disliker."
Not a hater, mind you. No movie featuring either one of those musclebound Aussie skyscrapers known as the Hemsworth brothers (this one has Chris, a.k.a. Thor, not Liam a.k.a Miley Cyrus' ex) can be all bad. I do admire a good car chase, whether in “Smokey and the Bandit” or in the original “The Fast and the Furious," and my double-digit viewings of “Slap Shot” and “North Dallas Forty” attest to my fascination with sports films—but only if the off-field play between characters is as compelling as the contest on the field. In the case of "Rush" it was immediately apparent that there was a slick formulaic surface clinging to this cinematic road trip. And for me, that was a turnoff.
"Rush" is based on the true story of Formula One adversaries James Hunt, a swaggering rock-star-bad-boy Brit, and Niki Lauda, a tersely pragmatic Austrian with zero social skills and an itchy middle finger, as they vied for the 1976 world championship title. If you know anything about these two not-quite-gentlemen, it's that one them will be sorely tested when tragedy strikes at speeds close to 200 mph. Much praise already has been heaped upon director Ron Howard—no stranger to car-themed movies as both a filmmaker ("Grand Theft Auto" ) and an actor ("American Graffiti")—for striving to capture the visceral thrill of the sport.
But I found "Rush" to suffer the same problem as most race-track movies, even if measures have been taken to give the audience a behind-the wheel point-of-view. As physically intense as racing might be, cinematically it's tough to portray as anything but repetitious. What's onscreen is a bunch of helmeted drivers in cramped vehicles chasing each other in circles with a few hairpin turns tossed in until the finish line looms—and, unlike real life, the results have already been determined.
I might have tolerated the film much more with the sound off. With the volume on, this movie feels like a mucho-macho Saturday morning cartoon—specifically Bugs Bunny toying with his eternal pursuer, Elmer Fudd. The action is fueled by a lot of pre-race trash talk, plenty of disparaging press-conference interviews and on-camera braggadocio, much plotting to maximize speed and outmaneuver the competition, tons of commentary during the actual races, followed by get-your-motor-running vroom-vroom on the track. (One of most overused pump-'em-up '60s hits ever, "Gimme Some Lovin'", is pressed into service once more.)
Although this arena is far more glamorous and unrehearsed, I found Hunt and Lauda's pre-race confrontations as annoying as the over-the-top interplay that precedes pro wrestling matches—and only half as clever as Bugs and Elmer's repartee.
"Rush" is not so much a bromance as a foe-mance with rivals who are completed—and in this case, literally driven to succeed—by their polar opposites. While Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Lauda are perfectly believable as their characters, I found it hard to root for either one—although Brühl's charisma-impaired Lauda is closest to being a sympathetic Salieri-like underdog. Howard and writer Peter Morgan eventually show how these bitter adversaries form a bond of mutual respect that can only be achieved when you both put your lives on the line to do what you love. But this moment arrives too late to break up a wearying pattern of bragging, bashing and crashing.
The film earns its "R" rating from Hunt's constant womanizing (his personal motto: "Sex: Breakfast of Champions") and scowling Lauda's propensity for using the F-word. Another contributing factor: the threat of violence lurking around every corner. The danger inherent in a sport that requires recklessness in order to win is flagged early and often, and Howard is not shy about showing the damage to flesh and metal. As Hunt says about his car, "It's just a little coffin, really, surrounded by high-octane fuel all around—for all intents and purposes, it's a bomb on wheels."
"Rush" takes an especially wrong turn at the corner of love and marriage. Olivia Wilde certainly looks the part of runway siren Suzy Miller who inspired Hunt to wed on a whim, but adds little but eye candy. The fact that she soon runs off with actor Richard Burton is about as interesting as she gets. Faring worse is Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda's first wife, Marlene Knaus, who mostly stands around silently and looks concerned, like one of the lesser nuns in "The Sound of Music." How do you solve a problem like Niki?
At least one scene did capture and hold my attention: when Knaus's car breaks down with Lauda driving and leaves the pair stranded on the quiet road in the Italian countryside, they each attempt to hitch a ride, and the outcome provides a clever twist on a similar scene performed by Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in 1934's "It Happened One Night."Other journalists who caught "Rush" in the same circumstances I did—at a Toronto International Film Festival screening—are seriously listing it as a possible best-picture Oscar candidate, and I suppose it could make the cut, depending on how it does at the box office. But to me, this celebration of male cockiness in vehicular form is a much lesser accomplishment than Howard and screenwriter Morgan's previous collaboration, "Frost/Nixon", which also revolved around a contest between formidable adversaries: a dour, disgraced politician, and a flashy media type who was widely perceived as a lightweight. The clash between very different men engaged in battles of the verbal kind produced a different kind of rush: one of the mind.