*1/2 (out of four)
Boy, the only thing more thrilling than seeing who can drive laps the fastest is seeing nothing of a race other than results on screen. “British Grand Prix. Hunt wins, Lauda second.” How exhilarating!
The fact is, competitions of endurance do not make thrilling sports flicks, and true stories of competition stall without an interest in the payoff of hard work. “Rush” tells a story that ... well, please let me know if this sounds fascinating: James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), an English playboy who looks like a Norse god and has a wicked reputation in the sack, and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), an arrogant Austrian rich boy who admits he looks like a rat, develop a six-year Formula One rivalry leading up to a championship-determining race in 1976 Germany.
Both men appear to be natural talents (there’s no indication why unsponsored Niki has to buy his way into the sport) and don’t work especially hard. They don’t do it for the fans or their countries, and they don’t demonstrate much feeling for their respective better halves. (Olivia Wilde plays Suzy, who takes exactly three scenes to meet, marry and split from James.) They’re merely fierce competitors who want to win or die trying in battles that aren’t inherently suspenseful.
Bears/Packers this is not.
Maybe this could be a tragic showdown between warriors who sacrifice everything because they’re happier in helmets. But director Ron Howard, who mostly makes stinkers these days, and writer Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Hereafter”) stage this dual need for speed, between someone who liked being liked and someone who preferred being feared, as a collection of strategic choices that has the emotional impact of shopping for tires. (Note: The overrated F1 doc “Senna” failed too.) The racing footage wouldn’t look like anything without the announcers explaining what’s happening, and Morgan’s script embarrassingly spells everything out. We can’t really be expected to believe top-caliber athletes stand around discussing why they continually risk their lives for the sport. Early in the film, James actually says, “I have a hot head [and] an inability to tolerate discipline,” as if we couldn’t just observe that. Alternating voiceover by each driver only makes things worse.
Hemsworth (“Thor,” “Snow White and the Huntsman”) again offers more than just a hulking presence, and at times the film achieves exhilaration through editing. It’s downright shocking how little feeling Howard, a frequent sentimentalist, pulls from this story, not to mention negligible clarity. How does the F1 point system work? Why are there different economics, as James’ financier (Christian McKay) claims, between F1 and F3? If these guys wanted racing stardom their whole lives, why not show some of what led to their eventual success?
At least in the often-lousy “Fast and Furious” movies, we’re not supposed to care.
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