Actors’ portrayals rev up ‘Rush’

09/26/2013 12:01 PM

09/26/2013 12:02 PM

“Rush” is a Formula One racing drama of almost irresistible forward momentum. The on-track action is blistering, the filmmaking sure-footed (even as cars fishtail into catastrophic crashes), the characters bigger than life.

Even more important, it avoids the stock plotting that turns most sports movies into bland emotional pick-me-ups. It’s one of the best films of Ron Howard’s career, certainly the most surprising. Who knew that this competent craftsman had such a furiously exciting, sex-drenched story in him?

By granting equal time to two historical figures, devil-may-care English golden boy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and his dark, calculating Austrian rival Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl, “Inglourious Basterds”), the film turns their racing rivalry into a collision between diametrically opposed personalities.

Hemsworth is nearly as glamorous a demi-god here as he is in the “Thor” movies. Bruhl, his rodent-faced rival, seems like a central casting villain. He’s an obnoxious know-it-all, doubly irritating because he’s nearly always right.

Don’t decide too quickly who to root for. Our sympathies shift as fast as a racer negotiating a tight curve.

The shrewd script by Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “The Queen”) stresses the parallels in the men’s lives. Each came from a family that disapproved of high-risk sports. Each man is petulant and childish. Hunt was a callous playboy, Lauda coldly indifferent to his wife. Each is willing to put his life at risk for a jolt of adrenaline and adulation.

They’re deeply selfish, giving little thought to the effect their risky careers have on friends and families. The virile, impulsive extrovert and the chilly, methodical introvert are kindred spirits, pushing each other to greater glory and ever nearer disaster. It’s a testament to the actors’ abilities that we find them partially sympathetic all the same.

There are clumsy passages here. We really don’t need a debauchery montage set to Bowie’s “Fame” to grasp that Hunt was publicity-drunk or a scene of Lauda painfully pressing his crash-scarred head into a racing helmet to understand that he was obsessively competitive.

Still, “Rush” red-lines the spectacle and exhilaration of the wildly eventful mid-70s Formula One circuit, while delivering something more complex and gratifying than a stock underdog story.

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