In the mid-1970s, Formula One racing fans were riveted by two up-and-coming drivers: blonde, chiseled English playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and focused, bluntly honest Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Both men began working their way up through the ranks at the same time, but Lauda's invitation to join the Ferrari team while Hunt sat on the bench turned general competition into a specific vendetta. Although his love of alcohol and women threatened to throw him off course, Hunt earns a spot a spot on the McLaren team for the 1976 season, kicking off a year-long head-to-head bid for the finish line in which neither one is willing to back down.
In terms of plotting and structure, Rush is fairly conventional, running a fairly straightforward course through the beats of "true story" drama. What makes the movie special is the incredible performances by Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth as the two drivers, a combination which easily vaults the movie up from so-so status to more than worth a look. When they're on screen, psychologically at each other's throats, the film crackles with an energy that is mysteriously absent from the many racing scenes and Hemsworth's solo dramatic arc.
Rush marks Hemsworth's first serious starring role post-Thor (most of his other films were ensemble pictures that didn't really place him front-and-center, not to mention two of them sat on the shelf for over a year). It's an interesting choice for Hemsworth: despite what the trailers would have people believe, Hunt is the supporting character, and more of an antagonist. When Hunt's first F1 season goes poorly and his backers drop him, he spirals into a funk, sitting at home and drinking while his wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde, wasted in a nothing role) walks out on him. Later, when he's back in the driver's seat, he sleeps with plenty of women, but there's little in his life other than the desire to win, and Hemsworth doesn't shy away from the character's lonely side. It's not a deep performance, but that's the point: Hunt may not be a bad person, but his worldview is small, and he lets his ego get the best of him.
If Hunt is petty, Lauda is outright abrasive, unwilling to pause for tact when explaining the flaws he perceives in his competition. It's an even tougher character, but Bruhl makes Lauda a magnetic, engaging, even noble character. Even when Lauda is at his meanest, it's clear that his commitment not only motivates him in the purest, most honest sense of the word, but that it works. Bruhl, most famous in the US as uncomfortable actor Frederick Zoller in Inglorious Basterds, submerges himself completely in Lauda -- every precise move of body and clipped insult out of his mouth oozes a certain type of confidence. Audiences may come to see Hemsworth, but this is Bruhl's movie all the way.
Disappointment creeps in thanks to the racing scenes, which are not as interesting as they ought to be (no wonder several of them fly by in a montage). The film's engine is the characters and the actors playing them, but during many of the Formula 1 scenes, director Ron Howard loses track of them in the car, and the movie's hold over the viewer lessens. It's no coincidence that the best racing scenes in the film, which include Lauda trying to impress his future wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) by speeding through the countryside in a borrowed car, and a climactic scene at the 1976 Italian Grand Prix, are focused on Hunt and Lauda rather than the race itself -- it's not the machinery that matters, it's the men behind the wheel.
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