The much anticipated Rush, Ron Howard's first film since the embarrassing comedy The Dilemma (2011), shows a return to decent form, and again demonstrates why the former child actor remains one of Hollywood's most bankable directors.
Based on the true story of Formula One racer James Hunt, and his on-track rivalry with German driver Niki Lauda in the 1970s, the movie is loud, fast, often clever, and highly suspenseful when it needs to be. It is also beautifully shot and breathlessly edited, with no expense spared.
What robs it of greatness is the thorny issue of character development, though some will argue such considerations are less important in a film like this.
Though the film portrays real people and events, too often the protagonists feel like types rather than three-dimensional human beings, lessening our involvement.
First, we have the buff Chris Hemsworh as Hunt. Standing nearly three inches taller than the real Hunt and sporting Thor-like biceps, you can scarcely believe he would fit in one of those sleek racing cars. Still, the Australian actor's star power is undeniable, and his Hunt has the flash and swagger that recalls (in earlier days) the charismatic Errol Flynn.
We learn Hunt was a party boy and ladies' man. The director makes sure we get the message by showing Hunt swigging lots of beer and whisky and on separate occasions, copulating with a nurse and an airline hostess, basically on sight.
Yet though we can understand why he's irresistible to women, we are never given any clues as to what makes Hunt so self-destructive. (His wicked ways would actually lead to an early death at age 45). The fact he habitually vomits before every race suggests the culprit may be fear, the constant proximity to death. But is that all? We never really find out.
Then there's Lauda, ably played by German actor Daniel Bruhl, who's depicted as Hunt's polar opposite. Where Hunt is affable and social, Lauda is a cold Austrian who cares only about racing and winning. Where Hunt races for the risk, excitement, and "sport" of it, Lauda views it as pure science and calculation.
In an all-too-familiar storytelling device, the two start out despising each other, but over time, arrive at a state of mutual admiration as fellow champions. The irony here is that it's the highly disciplined Lauda, not the more casual Hunt, who (literally) gets burned in the process.
"Rush" really is a two-character movie. Indeed, were it not for the fleeting presence of Italian racer Pierfrancesco Favino (Clay Regazzoni) and all those other cars on the track, one would assume there'd been no other drivers competing over those years. Also, the female roles are of the long-suffering, observational type. We have the radiant and talented Alexandra Maria Lara on hand playing Marlene Knaus, Lauda's wife. Repeatedly watching her worried look on the sidelines, you wish she had more to do. She does, however, make you marvel at the masochism involved in marrying a racecar driver.
Issues of script and character aside, the film is visually stunning and expertly paced, particularly in the second half. The concluding race sequence is also breathlessly exciting.
In all, "Rush" delivers both as solid entertainment and larger-than-life spectacle. I'm predicting it will leave most if not all box-office competitors in the dust.
To close, here are three other Ron Howard films worth revisiting.
Cocoon (1985)- A group of old folks in a rest home get new vim and verve when they sneak into the house next door to swim in the indoor pool. This fountain of youth is made possible by some visiting extra-terrestrials (in human form, led by Brian Dennehy) returning to earth to rescue some fellow aliens (in cocoon form) from the ocean. Once placed in the pool, these cocoons emit a special energy that provides healing and restorative properties to the seniors. The oldsters must keep this magic pool secret from their fellow retirees, since if their cover is blown, the aliens' benign mission could be compromised. But is this too big a secret to keep? Director Howard's delightful fantasy/comedy works, thanks primarily to wonderful ensemble playing from a sterling cast of old pros, including '40s star Don Ameche, real life spouses Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, a cantankerous Jack Gilford, and the always reliable Dennehy. Steve Guttenberg is also appealing as the boat charter operator; he's the only cast member under 50! And Tom Benedek's script is so good-natured and fun that we forget just how far-fetched the whole enterprise is. Watching the infectious "Cocoon", you're reminded that you're as young as you feel.
Apollo 13 (1995)- When an exploding oxygen tank threatens the 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission, endangered astronaut commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) must work with fellow spacemen Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) to pilot the injured craft back safely to Earth - or face a grim, suffocating demise 200,000 miles from home. Mission Control leader Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) is with them every step of the way, providing morale and technical guidance, but knows the men face an extremely risky re-entry even if the air holds out. A nail-bitingly tense (and true!) tale of survival against steep odds, this Oscar-winning drama rekindles the exhilarating enthusiasm the nation felt during the first flights to the moon, and also draws on the collective anxiety that pooled in the wake of the Challenger explosion. Even without this context, "Apollo 13" is a grippingly authentic thriller, crisply helmed by Howard and superbly acted by a first-rate cast, most of whom prepared for their roles with zero-gravity flights at the director's insistence. Houston, we've got no problem with "Apollo 13."
Frost/Nixon (2008)- When President Richard Milhous Nixon (Frank Langella) resigns from the White House in the wake of the Watergate scandal, British talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) hatches an idea to interview the disgraced former president, putting up his own money to clinch the deal when all the major networks turn him down. Viewed as a breezy, lightweight celebrity gabber, Frost puts his reputation on the line as he prepares to shoot the historic, four-part interview with Tricky Dick, a formidable adversary he hopes to elicit an apology from. Instead, he gets something more. Based on Peter Morgan's stage play, Howard's "Frost/Nixon" is an intelligent, impressive big-screen realization of a dialogue-heavy script that nevertheless packs in plenty of dramatic suspense, even though we know ahead of time that Nixon eventually damned himself by revealing too much in these 1977 interviews. Langella's embodiment of Nixon is artful and meticulous but not pure mimicry, while Sheen is shrewd but likable as a gallivanting ladies' man angling for Beltway respect. Both make worthy opponents who have more in common than they at first recognize. "Frost/Nixon" is faithful to the historical record, but imaginative in its freewheeling approach.
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