Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. Professor X and Magneto. Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. Whether their feud is intellectual, ideological or played out in front of baying audience, cinema’s most iconic rivalries paint their opponents as two sides of the same coin; analogous adversaries that, despite a grudging respect and even admiration, share a dogged determination to outmanoeuvre each other at all costs.
It’s this tried-and-tested foundation that director Ron Howard builds on with Rush, an extraordinary right-life report of two Formula 1 superstars on an often-literal collision course to claim the 1976 World Championship. Billed by commentators as the “grudge match of the decade”, the infamous contest between James Hunt and Niki Lauda is one of those better-than-fiction sporting tales practically ready-made for huge-screen dramatisation.
According to Lauda himself on one of the disc’s featurettes, several screenwriters had approached him over the years with the prospect of making a straight-up biopic. But it wasn’t in anticipation of The Queen scribe Peter Morgan leaning him a Hunt-vs-Lauda concept that the three-time world champion gave his blessing. As his character in the film muses, “Whatever it was that happened between us went deeper…”
Morgan’s script helps to avoid the pitfalls of many a bloated biopic by staying – for the most part – tightly focused on one enthralling F1 season. Over the course of 10 months and 16 races, British nonentity Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and reigning champ Lauda (Daniel Brühl) fought personal demons and life-threatening injuries – as well as each other – in pursuit of the drivers’ trophy.
Even without the on-track action, it’s a scintillating showdown. With it, it’s one of the most intense movie rivalries to date.
Channeling every ounce of his natural screen charisma, Hemsworth overcomes an initially jarring, plummy Englishness to impress as the impetuous Hunt, a ‘have fun guy’ who keenly adheres to his own motto: “Live and drive as if each day is your last.”
Not that he’s left to coast on charm alone, of course. Given Hunt’s financial frustrations, heavy drinking and tempestuous relationship with his model wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), it’s arguably the Thor star’s most challenging role since breaking out of Aussie soapland. Thankfully he approaches it with humour and heart, cannily proving there’s much more to his skill set than hammer-wielding, comic-book theatrics.
Brühl’s Lauda, meanwhile, favours steely efficiency over Hunt’s playboy ideals; focused to a fault, his calculated and often bracingly tactless approach gets the job done but doesn’t win him many friends. (His nonplussed reaction to hearing the news of a fellow driver’s honest crash? “He made a mistake,” he shrugs.) A hard character to warm to, perhaps, but Brühl energises him with wit and pathos.
It’s also testament to Howard/Morgan’s even-handed storytelling – honed on 2008’s Oscar-nominated double-slogan Frost/Nixon – that neither driver is favoured from the off. It might have been simple, especially by Hollywood standards, to position Lauda as a cartoonish supporting foil to Hunt’s loveable rogue, but the writer and director play the pair’s spiky relationship as yin and yang.
In fact, the scenes that see the two trading barbs further than of the cockpit are almost as electrifying as those that see them battling like gladiators from behind the wheel.
Nearly, that is. Propping up the off-the-track drama are a handful of jaw-dropping race sequences that convey a palpable sense of peril. Without today’s stringent safety measures, the Formula 1 of the ‘70s was a very different beast – a thunderous cacophony of “bombs on wheels” in which tragedy was often lurking just around the next bend – and it’s from this that the movie really mines its x-factor.
Showcasing a more visceral aesthetic than much of his previous work, Howard uses tiny cameras dotted in the tricksiest of places around the track, on the cars and inside the helmets to get closer to the action, immersing us in the drivers’ death-defying world and, at one point, even adding verve and foreboding to a game of Scalextric…
If you ever dismissed F1 as dull, this could – and should – be the film to make you reconsider. Race-movie fans, meanwhile, can rest assured that Rush leaves everything from the Steve McQueen-starring Le Mans (1971) to Stallone vehicle Driven (2001) looking stuck to the starting grid.
Shame, then, that the extras don’t measure up to such a fascinating piece of filmmaking. The 30-min Making Of offers a few fun anecdotes but hardly delves deep, while the 10 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes are mostly filler.
Most disappointing though is the teasingly titled featurette ‘The Real Report Of Rush’, which promises insight into these two racing titans but comes up frustratingly fleeting. You’d be better off picking up BBC documentary Hunt Vs Lauda: Grand Prix’s Greatest Racing Rivals, available on DVD the same day, as a more comprehensive companion piece.