There's a raw energy that runs throughout director Ron Howard's “Rush” that's hard to explain and impossible to deny. The film explores the rivalry between two completely opposite men — the hate, the respect, the will to do whatever possible to beat the other.
I don't think Ron Howard cares if you like either of the men. Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), the film's central character, devotes almost every moment to making a car that's a second faster and judges every decision on life by weighing risk versus reward. His nemesis is James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), a hard-living, hard-drinking womanizer who accurately describes himself as a worthless human being who happens to be fantastic at driving cars.
When they meet — as competitors in a Formula Three race — it's hate at first sight.
The dialogue between the men, and the emotions they stir in each other, reminded me a lot of the brutal day captured in Roger Michell's “Changing Lanes.” Both films feature characters that start with issues related to business but it quickly become personal. They then act in ways they might not otherwise — the intense desire to beat their rival leading to logically and ethically questionable decision-making.
While not particularly likable, Lauda and Hunt are fascinating. Hunt wants everyone to like him while Lauda doesn't care if anyone likes him. Their minds appear in such different ways that neither one seems to fully understand why the other behaves in their particular manner. There are tense moments during conversations where both men are passionately debating their side of the argument and I'm pretty sure both men thought they won the argument.
The already interesting story is aided by Howard's rather fearless direction. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) brings a raw, grainy feel to the film. The style works especially well during the racing sequences, capturing the sheer madness (or stupidity) of racing in Formula One while creating exciting race scenes that are coherent.
I know that coherence hardly seems like praise, but if not handled properly these scenes could have been confusing or boring.
Hemworth is more than adequate as Hunt (and it was nice to see him take an edgy role for a change), but Brühl steals almost every scene he's in. Brühl's Lauda functions on such a fierce level that I didn't want to like the guy but couldn't help but sympathize with him. It's hard to dislike someone who displays this level of work ethic and/or insanity (I've never met anyone this intense).
Writer Peter Morgan gives Brühl plenty to work with. Lauda's development, especially over the second half of the film, was complex and full of surprises. There's one moment late in the film that's so surprising and powerful I wanted the movie to end right at that moment because it was the perfect moment!
I mention this because the ending is the only real weak point of “Rush.” Howard and Morgan have a lot of ideas and questions in play by the final act, but it all never meshes together. The final 15 minutes linger through awkward dialogue, a sharp change from the fast-paced and intelligent first 100 minutes.
You know how some songs don't really end? Instead, the artist just continues to sing the chorus while the volume goes down. It was like the film version of that.
The anticlimax didn't ruin “Rush” for me, however. It's a smart, mean, intense and captivating experience.
“Rush” is rated R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use.