Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Rush Hour

I like sports movies, I really do. Depending on who is making them, they can be among the best or most exciting films in any given year. But if I'm being honest, they're not exactly the most original of tales. Whether you're watching Rudy, Rocky or Warrior, the story is essentially the same: man triumphs over impossible odds and learns just a little something about life/himself in the process. Even if the final outcome is defeat, there's a silver lining or a personal victory that overshadows the fact that they were just knocked down. It's an entirely predictable genre, even more so when the film in question is based on true events. That's when you need a good director to pull together everything he's got and assemble a movie that combines the truth of history with an engaging narrative that only filmmakers can provide.

Ron Howard's Rush has the distinct disadvantage of following Formula One racing, with all the speed of NASCAR but little of the built-in fanbase, at least here in the States (hey, SOMEONE made the Cars franchise profitable). More specifically, it chronicles the legendary feud between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), starting from their early days in the sport and through their fateful clashes during the 1976 Grand Prix. On the surface, no two people could be more different; the handsome and charismatic Hunt was an unbridled partier and ladies' man, but an eminently skilled driver; Lauda dour-faced and critically serious, but an unparalleled strategist. Yet despite their differences on and off the track, they had much in common: both were expelled from their business-oriented families, both with a desire to win against all odds. It's that hunger that drives them to compete harder and harder against one another, despite the tragic events that occurred in Germany on August 1'st, 1976.
Even the cars are vintage.
Despite not possessing rock-star credentials, it's easy to get behind this pair of feuding heroes. Of course, Hunt is easy to align with, Hemsworth's easy charisma and performance (along with his blond locks) make his an easy casting decision. But it's Bruhl's Lauda who the audience really connects with, as we see him conquer obstacle after obstacle in his hunt for the World Championship. Bruhl is also an unlikely star, with average looks and thick German accent that would barely sniff a Hollywood production. But of the two, he steals the show, and is easily the best part of a cast that, beyond he and Hemsworth, doesn't offer a ton of depth outside of Olivia Wilde's little-explored romantic interest for Hunt.
This isn't even a set pic; it's just an average day in Hemsworth's life.
The story is also solid, if more than a little predictable. The backbone of the plot is the feud between the two leads, and with both actors performing admirably, there's little that really deserves any complaint. If there's any weakness, it's the pacing and lack of exploration into the Grand Prix itself, a series of races that barely gets any screentime - or even a decent explanation as to its rules - before the final act. Basically, we see snippets of each relatively unimportant match, which include dozens of landmark racers (even mediocre sports fans ought to pick out Mario Andretti's name spoken by announcers) and only faintly touches on the finishes (and lack thereof) of the main duo. Only two races are really focused on, and even those are marred by painfully confusing jump cuts, overly-ambitious CGI, and shaky-cam, the most overrated trick in filming action of all time.
This is probably the best racing shot you'll see.
And that's the limit here in Howard's directing, the focus on character at the expense of the actual sport. I'm not saying that Howard is a bad director. Though he's certainly had his share of turds (The DaVinci Code, The Dilemma), he's also put out some of the most memorable films the modern era in Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon. As a director, Howard doesn't confine himself to any particular genre, choosing instead to do whatever strikes his fancy. And while he's by no means one of the biggest directors out there, he's versatile and just good enough that Rush never truly gets away from him. But whether the confusion over his race scenes is meant to be intentional, it will fail to enthrall racing neophytes and takes them right out of the movie, ensuring that the film will never truly enamor itself to a mainstream audience.
And that was his face BEFORE the accident!
As a sports movie, Rush is a solid, well-acted story about overcoming the odds and learning about yourself and life. If you're going into this with ideas that it will break out of that mold, you will be sadly disappointed. I can see this DVD taking up space on a racing fan's shelves, but like most similar fare it won't appeal much to non-sports fans. Still, if you're looking to see something outside of your comfort zone and don't mind accents and a few difficult-to-watch scenes, Rush is one of those movies that can catch you by surprise, especially when there's just not a whole lot better playing at theaters right now.

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