There's a strong urge to work in the words "exhilarating" and "adrenaline" at the very beginning of a review about Ron Howard's Rush, mostly because they're descriptors typically out of place for the director's style ... and, boy, the fact that they so aptly fit this one needs to be hammered home. Granted, one might assume that it'd be difficult to create a film about Formula 1 racing during one of its most hazardous transition periods in the mid-'70s without having some kind of energetic hook, especially in depicting the breakneck, almost hard-to-believe competition between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, polar opposite drivers caught in a harrowing battle of numbers and guts for the crown. Surprisingly, Howard puts the pedal to the metal with his creative inclinations here, harnessing the sport's horsepower, bracing motion, and imminent danger with instinctive and innovative techniques, cleverly infused with the character drama in how these individuals with clashing methods -- both on the track and off -- came neck-in-neck with one another.
After a brief framing scene revealing where the two men have arrived in the '76 F1 season, coupled with narration from Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) that'll reemerge throughout the rest of the film, Rush zips back six years to the beginning of Lauda and James Hunt's racing careers, to their lower-Formula days. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) fits the stereotype of a maverick to an exaggerated T: he's a relentless British playboy who mutes some of his high-octane persona with sex, booze, drugs, and before-race puking, yet his cavalier attitude makes him an aggressive and efficient presence on the track. Lauda, on the other hand, embodies the epitome of a clinical gear-head and risk evaluator, whose ability to modify cars and analyze his driving conditions makes the Austrian, in different ways, just as intimidating as Hunt. Howard's film chronicles how they got in their respective one-seater cockpits -- their financial triumphs, romantic endeavors, and flaunting of their talents -- until it sweeps those watching up in their escalating opposition during that momentous season.
While Howard has experimented with inventive visual tricks and vigorous special effects in the likes of A Beautiful Mind and Backdraft, Rush takes more envelope-pushing risks than his previous works. Slick imagery involving pumping pistons and failing internal mechanisms lend the film an abstract, kinetic energy during the blitz of the races, emphasizing the danger and the beauty of F1 vehicles -- a "bomb on wheels" -- through the lens of Slumdog Millionaire and Dredd cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. More importantly, he captures the thrill of moving north of 150 miles per hour in simply breathtaking racing sequences: the knee-jerk turns, the blur of motion, and the fluctuations in weather create an unexpectedly vigorous atmosphere, guided by the rhythm of aggressive sound design and Hans Zimmer's intuitive score. Against the backdrop of the authentically-recreated '70s locations, Howard has welded together an attitude here that really draws observers into the fray of racing's drama, making it easy to see why gear-heads and thrill junkies alike could get wrapped up in spirited competition.
Rush uses that artistic vigor as a vehicle for the personal drama surrounding the lives of Hunt and Lauda, illustrating how two men made of very different versions of "the right stuff" collide with one another, challenging the other to stretch their limits. The film establishes the type of inclination of people engaged in the potentially-fatal realm of motor sports -- those willing to succeed in motor sports, at least -- then takes us through the head-spaces of these guys and shows how they relish or cope with the danger, funneling into a pure and admirable depiction of competitiveness. Once again, screenwriter Peter Morgan puts the historical characters to the page in rather sincere ways, rarely embellishing their traits to make them likable: Hunt's ostentation and Niki's cold calculation paint them both as aloof obsessives at times, yet one of the film's strengths comes from how their demeanors aren't doctored for easy consumption. They have to earn the audience's compassion against their self-absorption.
Ron Howard does an impeccable job of not painting the friction between Hunt and Lauda as a choice between a hero and a villain, enhanced by the uncanny performances from Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl that go a long way towards enriching Rush as a evenhanded biopic about the drivers. Their authenticity makes their jabs an intriguing match to follow, where Hemsworth's charming daredevil abandon as Hunt often hits a wall against Lauda's clinical knowledge and self-awareness, faultlessly realized by Bruhl; there's a conversation between the two in the film about an insult thrown at Lauda that, in the midst of furiously moving cars and whirlwind dramatics, sticks out at a crowning moment. They're not the only ones in this story either, though: both men endure the ups and down of relationships as guiding forces behind their decision-making and composure, and the shrewd performances from Olivia Wilde as Suzy Miller (Hunt's wife) and Alexandra Maria Lara as Marlene Lauda add depth to the story as the headstrong women impacting them, despite seemingly perfunctory role in their lives.
The drama of the '76 season has enough twists and turns to mesmerize even without the assistance of refined filmmaking, but Howard's delivery makes the whole experience effortlessly accelerate across its two-hour runtime, underscored by developments late in the season that appropriately upshift the drivers' admirable qualities. Concluding in equal measures of daredevil heroics and pragmatic, poignant thinking after the dangers of F1 finally catch up to the men -- namely Lauda, in his storied accident -- it becomes inspirational in their own ways with the eyes of the world upon them. Perhaps what I admire most about Rush is the way it brings those themes home at the end with a simple conversation about the nature of what drives the two men forward, emphasizing exactly how much the film's power feeds off the examination of their characters instead of the machines they drive. It's a mature and confident way of closing out such a thrilling crowd-pleaser of a movie, a piece of work that should register with both racing enthusiasts and those compelled by the spirit of limit-pushing rivalry.
Rush enters the final stretch onto the home-video market in a standard two-disc Blu-ray presentation: Disc One being the HD presentation of the film, while Disc Two contains the standard-definition presentation. An embossed cardboard slipcover with raised lettering comes with initial pressings, replicating the front and back cover artwork. An Ultraviolet / Digital HD slip has also been included.
Video and Audio:
Rush looks phenomenal. Granted, that's something one might expect from Anthony Dod Mantle's colorful, energetic cinematography, but it doesn't lessen the appeal of this 2.35:1-framed 1080p AVC encode, filled with robust movement, bold color choices, and engaging metallic textures. Inventive scenes with fluctuating mechanical parts and blurred motion distortion offer engaging high-definition delights, along with the cascade of raindrops and the shine of moisture on the pavement. The changing weather conditions create a pretty wide spectrum of contrast levels and color saturation, where the sun-baked streets of Brazil and the overcast, gloomy atmosphere of the final Japan race run a gamut of intriguing exposures and deep black levels. Flesh tones and textures during a variety of close-ups are balanced and very well-detailed, and the wide array of clothing -- both elegantly flamboyant '70s attire and run-of-the-mill jeans and t-shirts -- harness a fantastic array of textures. It's a brisk, perfectly-executed transfer from Universal that should move up the poles into the demo-worthy department.
Perhaps even more significant here is the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, hallmarked by screeching tires and furious revving that power the atmosphere, . Not to put too fine a point on it, but every single effect that came out of the design nails those pitch-perfect, aggressively atmospheric notes one might hope for from a racing film: the lower-frequency channel took the engine rumbles and occasional crashes (with billowing fire) like a champ, while also hitting the higher-frequency with a tone distortion-free, assertive intensity. The depth of Hemsworth's vocals, the thickness of Bruhl's accent, and the richness of Olivia Wilde's elegant alto tones stay incredibly smooth and audible during conversations, while they coexist with the environmental effects of garages and after-race parties exceptionally well. Moreover, the surround channels are almost in constant use, where the movement of the F1 cars during races balance with Hans Zimmer's elegant score across all channels, creating this rich and persistent delight of a soundtrack that'll definitely push one's home-theater pedal to the metal. English and Spanish subs are available.
All points considered, the Race for the Checkered Flag: The Making of Rush (31:39, 16x9 HD) is fairly standard behind-the-scenes material, where director Ron Howard, writer Peter Morgan, and the actors/crew comment on the film's inception and creation. Director Howard's lack of knowledge about F1 racing prior to shooting and his willingness to push the boundaries become a recurring theme in the content, along with nailing down as much authenticity as possible. The segments cover the process of casting and how Daniel Bruhl worked to achieve such a spot-on performance, how the '70s clothing and setting were achieved through reference photos and digital effects, and how Anthony Dod Mantle coordinated with the production team to get those exceedingly slick racing sequences on film. Granted, the pieces are disjointed and don't really "flow" together as a complete half-hour piece, but the interview material and the range of behind-the-scenes shots makes for great after-screening materials.
Also available on the disc is a twenty minute overview on The Real Story of Rush (18:33, 16x9 HD), featuring archival footage and interviews from Howard's crew as the events and period are briefly traced, from the men themselves to their cars and the thrust of the '70s celebrity of F1 Racing itself. Furthermore, a series of Deleted Scenes (10:49, 16x9 HD), some interesting and others inconsequential, make an appearance. While I'd like for more pre-visualization content or a commentary with Ron Howard to fill out the supplements, the material that's here gets us across the finish line well enough. Disc Two includes a DVD presentation of the film, which contains the Ron Howard: A Director's Approach (7:25, 16x9) segment available on the Blu-ray (it's the last segment in the making-of piece).
There's a lot of raw beauty and power revving at the center of Rush, Ron Howard's biopic about the 1976 Formula 1 feud between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, that's been given a pulse by surprisingly exciting filmmaking from a deliberate and heavy director of character stories. There's nothing heavy about this: it's quick, suspenseful, well-performed, and earnest with what it has to say about the sport and the various types of daredevils who get behind the wheel for its glory. More than anything, though, Howard's skill with characters comes out equally as strong as the racing's brisk thrills, showcasing the contrast between Hunt, the stereotypical unbridled maverick, and Lauda, the emotionally-chilly calculator who's assertive in his own ways. As a biopic, as a motor-sports flick, and a balanced character study with clear-cut heroes and villains, there's a lot to absorb in this depiction of rivalry and camaraderie, and the extent two guys will go -- ignoring weather, personal relationships, and a fear of death -- to become "champs". Universal's Blu-ray floors it with fantastic audiovisual, especially the audio, as well as about forty-five minutes of pleasing behind-the-scenes features. Highly Recommended.