‘Rush’ is one of the good Ron Howard movies

Ron Howard's "Rush" depicts the rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl, glaring in the background).
Ron Howard’s “Rush” depicts the rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl, glaring in the background).

‘Rush’
Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan has made a career of defending the cruel, the pigheaded, the inhuman and the lazy. “The Queen” champions a monarch disconnected to the point of zombification; “Frost/Nixon” celebrates a slacker catching a lucky break, plus doles out sympathy for a monstrous ex-president. Ron Howard directed the latter, and he directs “Rush,” in which Morgan only in part succumbs to his traditional misplaced attention.

It’s about James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), the hedonistic, shaggy-haired Formula One star who won the World Drivers’ Championship in 1975 then, thus fulfilled, partied until his death not two decades later. (This isn’t entirely true, but it’s the story the film sticks to.) But it’s also about his arch-nemesis Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), ugly, big toothed, arrogant and very German (i.e., precise and ambitious).

As the film shows, their rivalry was largely a media creation, made to gin up controversy and inflate advertising dollars. But in the film, it’s more a dialectic. Each represents a dramatically different, in some way contradictory definition of success and competitive drive. Hunt is a boozer who gets by on his looks — Hemsworth is made to look like young Brad Pitt — but whose recklessness, and the occasional failed relationship, drives him (figuratively and, of course, literally). Lauda is a teetotaler who sacrifices all to craft; unlike Hunt, a trophy isn’t an end goal but just part of a lifetime of wins. (Bruhl, who periodically stole “Inglorious Basterds” as its lovelorn Nazi sharpshooter, is a hilariously egomaniacal Lauda, rocking the best fake teeth since Matt Dillon in “There’s Something About Mary.”)

“Rush” jumps back and forth between the two; they even take turns on the narration track. The requisite sports cliches abound, with the two alternating as the underdog and Hunt repeatedly intoning about the thrill of being close to death, staring it in the face and other things about not caring about perishing in a needlessly fiery manner.

But it admires them more when they’re not brooding like mere mortals but excelling, freakily, like superhumans. One tragedy not only doesn’t stop one of them, but makes him scarily stronger. As per their title — which fits this movie better than it did the 1991 narc movie that birthed “Tears in Heaven” (or even the band) — it speeds from one unbelievable truth (some slightly exaggerated) to the next, which Howard handily overdirects into a feast of smudgy colors and adrenaline junkie montages. (No one could ever follow the individual races, but who goes to races to follow them?) In the final moments the insufferable Morgan of old shows his face, but by then it’s too late to make an impact.


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