Good “bro” movies are few and far between, but Rush is one of them. Essentially a more serious version of Days of Thunder, albeit more from the perspective of Tom Cruise’s rivalry with Michael Rooker than his romance with Nicole Kidman, the movie hard-sells the kind of “competition as camaraderie” between men that’s really, really hard for dudes (myself included) to resist. Stylistically more adventurous than director Ron Howard has pretty much ever been, Rush delivers the bromance Howard halfheartedy promised with The Dilemma, except with characters that are actually sympathetic – despite a story that seems considerably less relatable.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays Peter Hunt, a scrappy Formula-3 driver who aspires to compete in Formula-1. His natural gifts – not to mention joyful recklessness – quickly places him at odds with Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), an Austrian with less obvious talent but greater discipline, and a rivalry emerges as they both advance to Formula-1. But in spite of the escalating intensity of their competition on the track, challenges in their private lives begin to test their resolve, and priorities, as they become forced to decide what they’re willing to do in order to prevail – not only over their opponent, but possibly their own better judgment as well.
If John Frankenheimer’s wonderful, sweeping Grand Prix is the definitive portrait of Formula-1 racing, Howard’s film offers a Cliff’s Notes version of that film, depicting races obliquely rather than comprehensively – an acknowledgment, perhaps, that most audiences are less interested in the mechanics of the cars and the track than the men flirting with death to manipulate them. He successfully captures the visceral experience of being behind the wheel – you’ll find yourself trying to wipe the drizzle from your eyes as the camera peers out of a helmet that’s being pelted with raindrops – but largely chronicles the unforgiving conditions of the races, not to mention the racers’ punishing schedule, through snapshots, freeze-frames, and intertitles.
Conversely, Howard languishes a little too much attention on the personalities of the two drivers, which has the odd effect of making one of them more interesting, while the other less. Hemsworth’s Hunt is a conventionally-appealing hero – good-looking, charismatic and intuitive – but his repeated drug use, womanizing, and general irresponsibility eventually undercut the audience’s sympathies. Lauda, meanwhile, initially seems like a brusque sniveler with a penchant for deliberately alienating teammates and friends, but his ruthless, unvarnished pragmatism quickly becomes weirdly charming, especially as it reveals itself to be less a product of rudeness or pure insensitivity than a deliberate effort to eliminate any obstacle to victory – be it physical or verbal, philosophical or emotional.
Although Hemsworth is appropriately unapologetic about Hunt’s shortcomings, he fails to hint at greater depths beneath the character’s thrill-seeking façade, and we’re left with a distinct but one-dimensional portrait of him even after the two men begin to find common ground between their respective attitudes. Bruhl, on the other hand, does incredible work with a character who could easily have been simply the uptight counterpart to Hunt’s free-wheeler, creating a complex portrait of a man whose repression of feeling is a conscious choice, and one with which he constantly struggles.
As suggested above, the movie bears a strange (if vague) resemblance to Days of Thunder in terms of some of its character beats, and incredibly, even uses Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” during an early racing sequence. But more – and more effectively – than anything, the film examines the bonds formed by men who compete with one another, and how those bonds are often stronger than between natural friends. In fact, the film falters only in presuming we prefer the headstrong charmer to his more gruff, calculating competitor, mostly because we understand him better. But even if it doesn’t quite hit the Formula-1 highs of Grand Prix – or even the glossy thrills of Days of Thunder – Rush distinguishes itself among otherwise anemic competition by utilizing precision rather than power: namely, by focusing on its characters rather than the cars they race.
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