RUSH (2013, Ron Howard)
People don’t remember with much fondness Tony Scott’s 1990 NASCAR movie DAYS OF THUNDER. It was TOP GUN on wheels and featured Tom Cruise coming off his first Oscar nomination with all the bravado and arrogance you’d expect — and he was co-starring with Nicole Kidman, whom he would soon marry. The film was full of Simpson/Bruckheimer cliches and had a dated rock soundtrack, featuring a Hans Zimmer score and songs like Steve Winwood’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” during its high-octane racing scenes. Its plot surrounded a rivalry between rookie driver Cole Trickle (!!!) and Rowdy Burns (!) that became a friendship after one of them was injured and nearly died in a brutal crash — and then fought to come back onto the racetrack.
Someone who may have had a little fondness for that film is Ron Howard. Howard directed Cruise and Kidman in their first post-wedding film together, FAR & AWAY (another film with a sour reputation – but one I enjoy). And now here he is, 23 years after DAYS OF THUNDER, making RUSH — starring Chris Hemsworth with the kind of cocky bravado one gets after starring in THE AVENGERS, and featuring a Hans Zimmer score and songs like Steve Winwood’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” during its high-octane racing scenes. Its plot surrounds the true-life rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, that became a friendship after one of them was injured and nearly died in a brutal crash — and then fought to come back onto the racetrack.
But put aside two things: one, that the films share a little too much in common (I mean come on, “Gimme Some Lovin'” again? Really?); and two, that you may not have liked DAYS OF THUNDER as much as I did (I do think it’s not bad at all, and really like the Duvall-Cruise relationship in it). RUSH stands on its own in some interesting ways. Howard’s direction is as energetic as it’s been since probably BACKDRAFT or the aforementioned FAR AND AWAY. Using Anthony Dod Mantle behind the camera (Danny Boyle’s go-to DP), he makes the racing scenes roar with aggression and tension. With firing pistons in close-up, debris striking the lens, and hot bodies tangling in sex every half hour, you’d think Howard was a 20 year-old college kid on Red Bull. But the pace is perfect for the story, and this is as well-edited a mainstream feature as I’ve seen all year. Secondly, Daniel Bruhl (fairly unknown to me aside from a small role in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) is terrific as Lauda, embodying the role of a serious German with a wealth of dimension and sympathy. Peter Morgan’s script leans a lot on the themes of competitiveness, macho posturing, and insecurity, but doesn’t really reveal anything profound about them. Still, there’s enough there to chew on during the precious few moments of downtime. The rest of the film is a propulsive piece of Hollywood entertainment, telling a story I’d never known with impressive slickness and swagger. And after efforts like THE DILEMMA and THE DA VINCI CODE, it’s nice to see Howard with a little spring in his step again.