(Photo : Universal Pictures)
2008 was the last time director Ron Howard got a positive reception from critics on one of his films. Since making the Best Picture-nominated "Frost/Nixon," the director has gone on to make such critical bombs as "Angels & Demons" and "The Dilemma;" both films also failed to cash with fans at the box office. However, those past missteps have seemingly proven to be the exceptions and not the norm for the direct. With his latest effort "Rush," Howard has not only returned to form, but has also created what may very well be the best film he has ever directed.
Set in the 1970s, the film tells the real-life story of the rivalry between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). The film starts at a crucial juncture in the story and the viewer hears a voiceover by Lauda regarding his rivalry with Hunt. Moments later, the film flashes back several years to a time when both men were Formula Three racers and had no real chances of making their dream of reaching the top division come true. Lauda has just been thrown out by his father while Hunt is an eternal ladies man and drinker who has no stability in his life and no seeming concern to get himself together. The two men meet in a third division race that sparks their rivalry and provides the main impetus for what is to follow. No sooner has this taken place that Lauda figures out a way to move into the top division; this prompts Hunt to do the same. From there, Howard showcases crucial races between the two men and how their egotistical behavior affects them in the private realm.
The unique aspect of this film is that neither of its two leads is particularly likeable. Hunt is the archetypal chauvinist who acts tough and parties. For him life is a game and anyone that stands in the way of that is not welcome. He knows that people are attracted to his bubbly personality and has no problem reminding Lauda of his own inadequacies.
Where Hunt is brash and primal, Lauda is pure intellect and thought. While his rival relies on his primitive instincts to get him through a race, Lauda is more meticulous with the design of his car and the particulars of its make and model. However, he is also misanthropic and seemingly looks down on others. His physical attributes, which run counter to Hunt's attractiveness, do little to help his cause.
Despite these massive shortcomings, the viewer cannot help but slowly build an affinity to both of them as the story progresses and the redemption at the end of the line comes into view. Hemsworth and Bruhl play a huge part in this identification as they give terrific performances of the pair. Hemsworth is his usual confident self, but this time he manages to add in just the right amount of vulnerability to make Hunt more than an overly confident playboy. The weakness starts to take hold of the character as the story develops until he starts to actively transform it into something more constructive for himself and others.
For many Bruhl is the standout and the credit and early buzz he is receiving is completely merited. Not only does he have the more physically demanding role in the latter stages of the film, but his own evolution as a character serves as the heartbeat of the film. Bruhl is pure vulnerability throughout, but whereas Hemsworth is an embodiment of strength slowly weakening, Bruhl manages to incrementally build up Lauda until he literally becomes a celebration of human perseverance and hope. The remainder of the cast, particularly Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda's wife Marlene Knaus, provides perfect compliments to the two main leads.
Narratively the film takes a few minutes to get used to as it shifts focus back and forth between the two leads with utter abandon. The transitions prove to be a bit jarring in the early stages, especially with the clutter of voiceover throughout, but the style eventually takes hold of the viewer and refuses to let up. Aside from the unsteady opening, the film moves at a brisk pace with the tension slowly picking up speed as it races toward its nuanced final scene. Howard brilliantly keeps the focus on the characters and their internal states while maintaining a solid balance with a few excellently executed race sequences.
The sound design in this film is top notch, particularly in the races where the perpetual sounds of the functioning engines are blended nicely with Hans Zimmer's propulsive and melodic score into what feels like one unified sound.
The film's makeup department should also be commended for some powerfully gruesome scenes it manages to create in the latter stages of the film.
"Rush" is likely to generate a tremendous amount of awards buzz and rightfully so as it is ultimately a complex portrayal of the dark sides of ambition and competition and the struggle toward redemption and self-improvement.