More than just a motorsports film, ‘Rush’ is must-see cinema

Universal Studios/Jaap Buitendijk

With much fanfare and directed by Academy Award winner Ron Howard, "Rush" hits theaters nationwide Friday.

Throughout the history of cinema, motorsports films generally have fallen into one of two categories.

The first is an overdramatized account of life as professional racecar driver, complete with the accompanying subject overcoming adversity and the pitfalls of success. The second genre is the screwball comedy using racing as nothing more than a backdrop for jokes full of broad stereotypes that almost always characterize the sport negatively.

This, however, doesn't mean motorsports makes for poor subject matter in films. Movies like "Grand Prix" and "Le Mans" strike the right balance between being too in-depth while still conveying enough broad appeal for mainstream audiences. And to a lesser extent, the same could be said about "Days of Thunder" and "Talladega Nights," two cult classics each with moments of brilliance, though still prone to trite clichés.

When the trailer for "Rush," the latest effort by Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard, was released in the spring, enthusiasm was high that Hollywood had finally made the perfect motorsports film. (This, of course, excludes the brilliant documentary "Senna," which is sublime but, again, is a documentary and not scripted fare.)

Expectations only rose as additional trailers were released and further information emerged about the recreation of the epic battle for the 1976 Formula One World Championship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

And for those concerned they will be let down by another movie that does a disservice to the aura of racing at the highest level, fear not. "Rush" not only exceeds all expectations, it unequivocally raises the bar for how motorsports should be portrayed on the big screen.

The simple narrative is that in addition to being bitter rivals for the championship, Hunt and Lauda are also a contrast in personalities. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is the playboy who enjoys all the trappings -- sex, drugs, booze -- that go along with being a good looking driver on the grandest stage. His driving style is the least dangerous aspect of his personality.

"The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel," Hemsworth's Hunt says. Though he's referring to his attacking style as a driver, he just as well could be describing his exploits out of the cockpit.

As for Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), he possesses a singular focus and has little time for excess. He's in demand as a driver not because of his acumen behind the wheel, but more so because his gifted derriere allows him to setup a chassis like no other.

Yet neither is quite what they seem.

While he may give the public appearance as someone  unfazed by the moment and as nonchalant as they come, in actuality, Hunt is a jittery ball of nerves. He often vomits before key races and habitually flicks a lighter to comfort himself. Although Lauda seems to disdain personal relationships and is more at ease describing the inner workings of his Ferrari, he yearns to be liked.

More than anything, "Rush" is not a mere film about the dangers and debaucheries of Formula One in the '70s. And at no point does the story rely on hackneyed clichés that make a great real life rivalry seem something contrived by writers in a vain attempt to manufacture drama.

An adult movie, "Rush" depicts an earnest study of two individuals with similar goals but with wildly different ways of pursuing their aspirations. Along the way, Howard hits every note with aplomb, and the cinematography exceptionally captures Formula One in all its wonderful glory.

Motorsports fan or no, "Rush" is a must-see that needs to viewed in a theater, where its grandeur can be appreciated to its fullest.

"Rush" opens nationwide Friday Sept. 27.

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