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Ron Howard might be the most big-earning, blockbuster-producing, award-winning Hollywood filmmaker to still qualify as underrated. He’s been playing at or near the top of his game for a few decades now, and yet it always feels like he gets left off the lists of top-tier directors when such things are assembled; and not just because he occasionally releases junky cash-grabs like The DaVinci Code or outright AWFUL movies like The Dilemma and the live-action version of The Grinch.

Some of that is about “dues-paying,” or rather the sense that Howard somehow still hasn’t paid enough of his. There’s a tendency to be suspicious of folks who seem to advance within a system from the inside rather than finding a direct entry point, after all, at it would be hard to find someone who’s more of a Hollywood insider than Ron Howard: His mother was an actress, his father was an actor, writer and director, and Howard himself got in on the ground floor; starting out as a child actor most-notably on the wildly popular “Andy Griffith Show,” then in the smash hit “American Graffiti” and the long-running “Happy Days” along with a smattering of other movie roles and guest spots. So one can see how some in the industry scoffed when he started landing prime gigs as a director in the 80s and 90s – Oh, big surprise. Opie gets to jump ahead in line. This, of course, ignores the fact that “Opie” cut his teeth directing – famous or not – in the same place as other up-and-comers of his era: Doing low-budget grunt work for Roger Corman. By now, child star or not, he’s proven himself.

Me? I think it comes down to style more than backstory at this point. Appraisal of great directors among critics, academics and cinematic tastemakers has been dominated since the late-50s by Auteur Theory; which posits the director as final ultimate author of a film by analyzing recurring themes and aesthetic decisions across an individual director’s body of work. This has helped to elevate the reputations of filmmakers like David Fincher, Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg, Tim Burton and so forth, since their having VERY specific stylistic preferences makes their authorship readily identifiable; but it just as often shortchanges those like Howard who don’t – there’s nothing that really “unifies” his filmography other than the films usually being really good.

He’s excelled at comedies like Night Shift and Gung-Ho, action flicks like Backdraft and Ransom, scifi/fantasy fare like Cocoon and the under-appreciated Willow, old-fashioned melodramas like Cinderella Man and even stark, sparse character pieces like Frost/Nixon.

Now we can add Rush to Howard’s win column. Rush, a 1970s-set Formula 1 racing drama that once again doesn’t feel like any other Ron Howard movie (even though he started out in racing films); this is macho sports drama about the impassioned rivalry between a pair of competitors at the top of their game – think Rocky but with cars and very little of the blue-collar sentimentality. It’s a movie about larger than life personalities driving obscenely expensive machines at lethal speeds in an era when Formula 1 slick globalized grandeur and posh celebrity trendiness made it a sport of drama and decadence that makes NASCAR look like the bumper-car ride in a Branson-area county fair.

The rivals in question are Britain’s James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria’s Nicky Lauda (Daniel Bruhl, best known stateside as the conflicted Nazi sniper from Inglorious Basterds. ) The film is at great pains to remind us that these were both real guys whose real-life professional rivalry really did become a media-phenomenon during the 1976 Formula 1 season. It needs to be, because these guys were so perfectly-set in diametric opposition that if you didn’t know this was a (mostly) true story you’d assume they’d jumped straight from a particularly-hacky screenplay outline.

How arch are we talking? Well, Lauda is an icy, calculating precision driver with a genius for auto-engineering and a poor-little-rich-boy backstory who rattles off risk/reward statistics on reflex; while Hunt is a hard-living cad with a rock-star attitude for who approaches racing the same way he approaches sex, drugs, booze and food: He wants as much as he can get of the best he can get as fast and as close to the edge of death as possible. Lauda presents as so socially-awkward that today he might appear borderline-autistic, while Hunt tries (and largely succeeds) at being everybody’s favorite friend.

rush movie poster

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.

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