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Yeah. It's basically a riff on "The Tortoise & The Hare," repurposed as the skeleton for an otherwise dead-serious racing drama. Subtlety isn't its strong suit - Hunt and Lauda are both exactly what they look like and precisely what they say they are. This is straight-up, black-and-white, zero-filler brains versus brawn/want vs will mythmaking, but with a key difference: The film doggedly resists having an opinion about them.
That's not to say it's not "interested" in them, as biopics about guys whose main contribution and skill involved driving very, very fast in a loop Rush is a fairly deep dive. But a more conventional sports drama would be expected to process the back-and-forth through a good/evil filter: Lauda the shy dweeby hero overcoming Hunt the swaggering bully, or alternately Hunt the big-hearted lug versus Lauda the joyless stiff. Either one would work, given some of the big turning points: At one point Lauda gets one of Hunt's victories vacated on a minute technicality, at another Hunt uses his influence and charm to force the German Grand Prix to go forward despite dangerous weather conditions - resulting in Lauda, who pushed to call the race off, being nearly killed in a fiery crash that leaves him graphically disfigured.
But this movie is just a little bit smarter than that... or maybe just a little more clinical. It paints a broad, arch picture of each man, but does so in full, and seems specifically invested in the idea that the same things that made both of these guys iconic and admirable as sports figures also probably made them a bit obnoxious as men. Hunt is a reckless, womanizing braggart whose bravery in risking his own safety is constantly undercut by his carelessness with the safety of others. Lauda, outside of a dorky-endearing approach to courting a glamorous aristocrat he meets while trying to not attend a swanky party, comes off like a complete prick - to the point where his violent near-death is almost fortunate for dramatic purposes: It's the only thing that makes him seem remotely human.
So yes, dramatically it's unique enough to pass muster; but where the film really shines are the racing sequences. Granted, F1 is hard to make not exciting: Automobiles stripped to their bare essentials - spindly metal skeletons flying down twisting tracks on oversized wheels, the drivers' heads exposed, etc; but Howard is drawing on action chops he hasn't really worked since The Missing (a hard-edged Western that too few people remember) a decade ago and getting some really good mileage (sorry) out of it.
You really feel the speed of the track, the weight of the cars and all the charging machinery in the engines; and Howard makes a canny stylistic choice in keeping that same industrial slickness consistent throughout the non-racing sections. Graphic scenes of Lauda's post-crash surgery and recovery are cut with the same rhythtm and detail as the scenes of mechanics toiling away at car engines, while Hunt's boozing, brawling and skirt-chasing are shot with the same nervous intensity as his driving.
It's a bit unfortunate that Rush doesn't seem to want to cut any deeper than the one-two-three formula of Perfect-Rivals/Grudging-Respect/Unforgettable-Season sports drama, but in the end it doesn't really need to. It's self-assured, handsome-looking and more than lives up to its name. Plus, there's been a dearth of decent sports movies lately (Why didn't people go to see Warrior, again?), so it's good to finally get a really good one. Yes, even if you don't give a damn about Formula 1.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.