It’s surprising that despite any number of action films featuring high speed car chases over the years, the genre of motor racing movies has never really taken off. There’s John Frankenheimer’s gold standard Grand Prix in 1966 and Steve McQueen’s Le Mans five years later; the comedic The Cannonball Run in the Eighties and early Tom Cruise vehicle Days of Thunder in 1990. The less said about Sylvester Stallone’s witless Driven in 2001 the better – at least the kid’s CGI animated Turbo was intentionally laugh-out-loud funny. But overall that’s still very meagre pickings for five decades of motion picture making, compared to six entries in the Fast and Furious franchise alone since the turn of the millennium.
Formula 1 also has a particular problem gaining traction in the box office by virtue of being something of a non-entity in the all-important United States, where it’s all about the stock car racing these days. The excellent documentary Senna was something of a niche hit stateside a couple of years ago, but Rush proves that the US still isn’t ready for a full F1 blockbuster,. Despite very good reviews it failed to do great business in the US even though it stars Thor star Chris Hemsworth and is helmed by A-list director Ron Howard. The film did everything it could to be open and accessible to all and not just to petrol heads, but sadly the crowds remained resolutely disinterested.
Their loss, the rest of the world’s gain, because this is a terrific movie – not just for motor racing geeks like myself, but for anyone who likes a well crafted film with a top notch script focussing on two compelling, flawed and completely contrasting personalities.
Rush is written by Peter Morgan, and he has adopted a similar strategy to his previous projects which include Frost/Nixon and The Queen in taking a huge dramatic story and boiling it down to an intimate drama about just two people. In this case, it’s racing drivers James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), their rivalry culminating in the 1976 season in which the two men went head-to-head for the F1 world championship, a confrontation which went all the way down to the final lap of the final race of the year at a drenched race track in Japan.
The two become early adversaries in a lower formula six years previously. From the start Hunt appears the indolent, handsome, English upper-class playboy, racing purely for the fun of it and also because it gets him all the champagne and women he can handle (and in Hunt’s case, his appetites for both were prodigious.) Lauda meanwhile is utterly focussed on the racing, has a brilliant mind for technical set-up while abstaining from every one of the vices in which Hunt revels, but at the same time possessing a most unfortunate manner that leaves him little-liked in the paddock.
Knowing the story pretty well, I’d figured that the film would make Hunt the charismatic hero figure that everyone would swoon over, while Lauda would be the more interesting character. It turns out I was wrong: Morgan’s script progressively strips away the layers and shows the insecurity, weakness and darkness of Hunt’s self-destructive character to make him every bit as fascinating, while at the same time the writing burrows under Lauda’s abrasive veneer to make us truly care for him as a likeable human being, never more so than when he suffers a serious accident and has to undergo a painful rehabilitation that leaves us unexpectedly but wholeheartedly rooting for his successful comeback. Ultimately one of the men decides to put love ahead of ambition, while the other is unable to.
In the end the film does stick to fairly familiar territory, in showing how the animosity and hatred between the two men serves to propel them to higher and better achievements in their careers. A moment toward the end of the film even has them explicitly acknowledge this, but whereas most Hollywood films would then have the two commence a lasting friendship with a hug, in fact they part in a virtual reprise of their first confrontation – albeit with a different understanding and acceptance underneath the barbs. Nothing has changed, except everything that’s important.
A great script, then, and one that’s full of laugh-out-loud humour as well as poignant drama. Hemsworth is actually great as Hunt – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him better in a film – while having been a fan of Brühl’s ever since Goodbye, Lenin! it’s no surprise to me at all that he is completely brilliant as Lauda. The other parts are fairly brief and little more than cameos, with Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara as Hunt and Lauda’s wives respectively, and British talent Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt and David Calder as various team personnel and owners with The Thick of It’s Geoffrey Streatfield as Hunt’s brother Peter. The film makes a good choice of assigning the key voiceover exposition work to a real life Grand Prix commentator Simon Taylor, who seems to be knowingly channelling the incomparable Murray Walker at points.
Such authenticity – both for the Seventies period and the sport – is the big by-word for the entire production, and Howard has gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that the racing scenes look and feel right to all but the most unforgiving of pedants. While I’m sure that production requirements must have meant a few compromises were inevitable, I certainly didn’t catch any significant goofs on my first viewing. The cinematography is wonderful (and beautifully captured through the high definition transfer on the Blu-ray) and the direction managed to put new visual flourishes into what could be very familiar and clichéd racing sequences to really bring it all alive and put us right in the heart of the action. The icing on the cake is undoubtedly the soundtrack – not just the great musical score from Hans Zimmer, but the deep-throated roar of the engines and the squeal of the tyres as well as the ambience of the race venues themselves, all of which are as much a fundamental part of the spirit of F1 for fans as the high speed action on the track itself.
All in all, I can’t imagine how this film could have been improved. It doesn’t have the raw emotional gut punch of something like Senna, which I would still rate above this; but that’s because Rush is a drama with the slightly arms-distance filter that this inevitably entails. We’re aware we’re watching great actors working to a classy script with the aid of top-notch special effects, whereas with Senna (and watching the sport itself live) it’s a case of seeing the actual truth and dangerous events as they happen which is altogether a different experience.
But as far as staged racing movies go, Rush is probably as good as it’s possible to get. It’s certainly the best motor sports movie we’ve yet seen to date, and the best thing of all is that it’s also a terrific movie in and of its own right that everyone should see regardless of whether they like racing, full stop.
The Blu-ray: a wonderful, virtually flawless video and audio transfer in high definition, with vivid colour and precision detail across a wide range of period and action sequences. The special features total up at about an hour and are solid without being overly exciting: there’s some deleted scenes, a batch of ‘making of’ EPKs and a further collection of featurettes about the real story and drivers. Sadly, no audio commentary from cast or director though.
Rush is out on DVD and Blu-Ray now – click on the images above to go to the correct pages at Amazon.co.uk.