See itThe real-life events that defined the headline-hogging animosity between Formula 1 racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), whose public spats and fierce rivalry engrossed sports fans in the 1970s, is perfect fodder for dramatisation.

Ron Howard’s new movie Rush is a foot-to-the-pedal sports movie broad enough to appeal to non-petrol heads, such is the director’s middle of the road sensibilities. The 59-year-old filmmaker’s extensive body of work (A Beautiful Mind, Back Draft, The Da Vinci Code, Apollo 13Willow etc) suggests a genetic incapability to make niche pictures.

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In a gift to dramatic convenience, Howard’s two main characters are polar opposites. Hunt is the handsome bad boy Englishman and Lauda, the disciplined Austrian who doesn’t like taking risks.

Their rivalry begins in Formula 3. Hunt is the golden child, collecting trophies and lapping it up as a booze-guzzling sex magnet. When Lauda races ahead into Formula 1, Hunt desperately tries to catch up. The contest culminates in a spectacular season-long fight for the title of world champion.

There are few sports movies that satisfyingly bask in the pleasures of the game while simultaneously mounting an argument that the core may be vacuous or rotten. Here’s one that makes a good fist of it. Howard pounds together big-toys-for-big-boys hoots and squeals with an underling message that all this whizzing around may be for little, or nothing.

The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan is reluctant to steer support clearly in the direction of either main character, which means the audience don’t find themselves locked into a situation in which enjoyment of the movie is predicated on which person triumphs.

“You were prepared to die to win. To me, that’s losing,” is the script’s best line. It’s one of those lovely bits of dialogue indicative of so much of what the film is about, without demeaning a viewer’s ability to determine meaning for themselves.

Rush is at its most interesting when it explores where the edge is: between the drivers’ egos and minds; between the film’s embrace and condemnation of the sport. Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote that “there is no honest way to explain it (the edge) because people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

If Rush had invested more energy into how smart people can be scorched by their own ambition but keep returning to the flames, lured by their egos and the thrill they may be burnt again, it could well have evolved into something more than a very entertaining well-made movie.

Aesthetically Rush reflects the work of late era Tony Scott (Unstoppable, Man on Fire, Domino, etc), a frenetic visual style loaded with rapidly cobbled together close-ups and jittery smell-the-bitchumen points of view. Howard over-eggs the pudding, stacking on so many screeching shots it’s sometimes hard to follow the location of the cars.

He is a kind of auteur-anti-auteur, the sort of director whose approach adapts to the style of the time. What doesn’t change is the importance he places on story, the way in which he seeks a kind of invisible artistry. Howard wants you to be immersed in his movies, not for you to walk away reminded of a distinctive style (he doesn’t have one).

There is a certain merit to that. The downside, despite a rollicking ride such as Rush, is his movies can feel oddly nondescript, like they could have been directed by any number of guns for hire.

Rush’s Australian theatrical release date: October 3, 2013. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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