Ron Howard is one of the most difficult directors to pin down. Lacking a distinct style apart from an artificial, awe shucks feeling that’s stuck with him since his Opie Taylor days, Howard’s films are all over the place. From the terrible (“The Dilemma”) to the fantastic (“Apollo 13”) and even the let’s give him an Oscar just because (“A Beautiful Mind”), the only certainty with the man is you have no idea what you’re going to get with him. It’s one of the reasons “Rush” is so good; you’re forced to ask yourself if this is really a Ron Howard film.
Based on the true story of race car drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruel) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), the film finds the pair in the sixth year of a rivalty that’s spanned their racing careers, from Formula 3 all the way to Formula 1. They’re perfect foibles: the cold, calculating Lauda is all business. Hunt loves to sleep around and party, living on the edge both in the car and out of it. To be around in 1976, watching these two compete for the championship must have been a sight to behold.
The only drawback, oddly enough, are the race sequences. They’re some of the most stylish and exciting sequences Howard’s ever lensed, but the races don’t capture how dangerous those cars were back then. “Grand Prix,” the 1966 John Frankenheimer film (and one that “Rush” takes a few cues from) is to this day the torch-bearer for exciting race scenes. But the races aren’t what make “Rush” so entertaining. It’s what those races do to the drivers. Hunt throws up before getting in the car and has a nervous habit of playing with his zippo lighter. Lauda retreats into his shell, focusing only on the race and nothing else, cursing happiness as a weakness.
Hemsworth, ramping up the charisma that made him a star with “Thor,” proves once and for all he can carry a film that doesn’t involve superheroes. Bruel, whose performance as the Nazi sniper in “Inglorious Basterds” now plays like a trial run for his portrayal of Lauda, takes things up a level as well. Peter Morgan, who also wrote Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” has crafted his most commercial script to date. The best screenwriter of biopics (and in general) around, Morgan sometimes gets lost in his character’s words, letting them ramble on about things and ideas that enhance a performance but don’t do a lot for the film itself. “Rush” is more streamlined; a perfect mix of action and drama, making it his best work to date.
There’s a long way to go before Academy Awards season heats up, but “Rush” has, for lack of a better pun, raced into the pack of contenders. Chances are it won’t win any major awards, but Morgan’s fantastic script is almost a lock for a nomination, and Ron Howard has made his best film since “Apollo 13,” which came out way back in 1995.