Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Speed Racers: RUSH

It’s amazing to see how anyone’s life turns into biopic cliché when run through the Hollywood prestige drama machinery. There’s the early rising promise, the problems with health and/or addiction, and then the inevitable triumphant comeback. We’ve seen it all so many times before. Where Ron Howard’s Rush steps smartly and does much to combat the pitfalls of its genre is in the way it bifurcates the based-on-a-true-story of 1970’s Formula 1 racing rivals Niki Lauda and James Hunt. It’s two biopics in one, gaining excitement and energy from crackling two variations of the clichés off of the other. It allows the men to seem in some ways equally insufferably arrogant and admirably dedicated to their careers. We can see why they’d come to see each other as professional enemies, as well as why they’d come to admire the other’s professional bravery.

As James Hunt, Chris Hemsworth (Thor himself) humanizes what could’ve easily been less a man and more a monster of machismo. Tall, blonde, muscled, he’s a rippling mass of self-satisfaction and self-confidence. He’s a jerk. It’s hard to care about him, but Hemsworth’s brings to the part creeping insecurities that sometimes temper harsh judgments without excusing his behavior. Similarly, Niki Lauda could be seen as only cold and calculating, using technical precision and cutting remarks to win without caring what others think of him. But as played by Daniel Brühl (the Nazi propaganda star from Inglourious Basterds) he becomes a man whose unstoppable need to prove himself is intensely sympathetic and just as much a potential danger.

Tracing their rivalry, the film follows their careers in the 1970s as they meet again and again on the racetrack. Their ascents are intertwined; one’s biggest failures on the track the other’s biggest successes. Between races, much attention is paid to the politics of corporate sponsorships and relationships with pit crews and mechanics. There’s also a token amount of romantic interest as Hunt and Lauda each find women (Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara, respectively) who love them enough to have the thankless task of serving as cutaway reaction shots during the races to underscore how dangerous it all is. They’ve got something to lose.

The screenplay by Peter Morgan (of The Queen and Frost/Nixon, among other films like them) has his characteristic insight into the based-on-real-people characters’ psychology and their relationships with each other. It also suffers from his characteristically stiff dramaturgy and the kind of clumsy narration that often insists on telling us exactly what people are thinking when the acting on display would and could do just as well. But for all the clunky dialogue and routine biopic paces, the film takes off at top speed, hurtling through cliché with a blistering sense of stirring, energized sports’ movie hokum. I’d like to think a movie about any job, even, say, rival pencil-pushers, could have a great deal of entertainment value if done right, but the fact that these men have careers racing cars is a gift that the filmmakers sure don’t squander. It becomes the film’s greatest asset.

Foregrounding Hunt and Lauda’s needs for speed in a continual quest to best the others, Rush is muscular, speedy, and masculine. Pistons pump, sparkplugs fire, and motors roar. The film bursts with bruising sound design and a thunderous Hans Zimmer score. It’s practically Bruckheimerian. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography rattles at top speed, images blurring, edited to smash one into the next, then the next, next, next. The cars fly down the track at top speeds, danger around every corner. The death defying nature of the sport is never far from the film’s awareness, an appreciation reflected in the film’s visual bombast. It’s all movement, a blitz of frames Howard marshals with atypical freneticism. No stranger to fast cars – his directorial debut was the 1977 Roger Corman production Grand Theft Auto, after all – he takes Mantle’s propulsive camerawork and makes out of it a film that outraces the sometimes rigidly formulaic writing.

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