After a series of would-be prestige pictures, critically lambasted Dan Brown novel adaptations, and a dreadful Vince Vaughn comedy (The Dilemma), Ron Howard returns to the screen with a hyperactive Formula One racing drama.
For years Ron Howard has managed to be the director everyone knows, without having much of an identity of his own on the screen. He has stood on the shoulders of the giants who tutored him in the art of filmmaking (the likes of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Roger Corman, etc.) and continually begged, borrowed, and stolen from them outright. His style, if one can call it that, seems to be in the tradition of the Hollywood of old, or — to put it bluntly — completely old-fashioned. Every film is so earnest, it’s as if he is begging the industry to hand him an Oscar, an achievement that he managed to earn for 2001’s white-washed and emotionally castrated A Beautiful Mind. His early work remains his most fascinating, simply because he was working so closely with those whose movie magic he wished he could duplicate. What a surprise then that his latest film, Rush, is a great change of pace for the middling director. The film is full of humor, sex, alcohol, violence and a little depravity – all things he has avoided throughout his career. It also features inventive camera work, competent performances, slick editing, and most shockingly of all – some genuine fun. For parts of the picture it is as if Howard has been possessed by a 90’s era Michael Bay. There are times when many will be wondering if they are indeed watching a Ron Howard production at all.
Rush tells the true story of Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, who in the 1970’s had a bitter rivalry. The film chronicles (spoiler alert for anyone who doesn’t know their racing history) their rise to fame, to Lauda’s tragic racing accident, to Hunt’s eventual victory. It’s all a bit formulaic, as most biopics are these days, but there is a great sense of urgency throughout the proceedings. It helps that both of these men had effortlessly douche-tastic personalities that translate well to the larger-than-life screen biopic treatment. Chris Hemsworth plays the care-free Hunt with a swoon-worthy smile, and an ego triple the size of most multiplexes. His British accent seems a bit dodgy, but he manages to get the job done. Faring better is Daniel Bruhl as Niki Lauda. His story is the more compelling of the two because there is more at stake for the character. Racing is his life’s passion — and without it he is lost. He treats his job with the utmost respect while being a fierce competitor, as opposed to Hunt who would rather get the rewards of the race than live for the sport itself. The film also begins and ends from Lauda’s point of view, making it easier to identify with him as the protagonist. The marketing and award ads have pushed Bruhl as the supporting actor of the piece. What a load of hogwash. He owns the film.
Howard directs the racing sequences with a surprising amount of suspense and tension. When a crash happens, you feel the impact and see the consequences in stark detail. Credit must be given to Editors Daniel P. Haney and Mike Hill for their creative cutting of these sequences, and for making the picture move along — even when Howard gets stuck in stuffy melodrama mode. And yes, Howard unfortunately gets stuck there all too often. For all the fun he seems to be having, he can’t fully let go of his serious filmmaker ego and many of the domestic scenes get bogged down by his inability to go all the way. It doesn’t help matters that he is again working with screenwriter Peter Morgan (of Frost/Nixon fame) who always puts a highbrow mark on everything he does. The look of the film has that same slightly desaturated palette that Howard employs every time he works in a more modern period setting: thank heavens then for Anthony Dodd Mantle, who continues to do wonders with digital photography, despite having to adhere to his director’s restrictive vision.
When watching Rush it’s easy to forget who made it. That is both a blessing and a curse for Ron Howard. He continues to struggle to find his own artistic voice — and at age 60, it is doubtful that he ever will. This may be the loosest and most enjoyable film he has ever directed, but it is largely an empty project, wavering between summer blockbuster entertainment and the prestige awards slate. Let us hope that Howard continues to tackle new genres and finds new directors to riff off of. At least it’s a welcome change of pace.