It is not a requirementnor even recommendedthat film characters be lovable angels free of imperfections, but, if they aren't engaging enough to care about following, what are prospective viewers left with? It is this considerable pitfall that plagues "Rush," director Ron Howard's (2011's "The Dilemma
") uninspired biopic about the tumultuous rivalry and eventual respect formed between 1970s Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Hunt, a smooth-talking, hard-living Brit, and Lauda, a determined, technically savvy Austrian, meet in 1970 at a Formula Three race in London and don't take long to lock horns as opponents with vastly dissimilar personalities. Hunt sees Lauda as a man who paid to get where he is (he took out a hefty bank loan to buy his way onto the Formula One team), while Lauda regards Hunt as a reckless, immature loose cannon consumed more by fame and women than he is the skill that goes into professional car racing. Largely centering around the 1976 competitive season, Hunt and Lauda cross the globe while fighting for the title of World Champion, participating in Grand Prix in Italy, Brazil, Germany and Japan. As the excess-heavy Hunt jumps the rails when model wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) leaves him for Richard Burton, Lauda faces an uphill battle after receiving debilitating third-degree burns in the German Grand Prix. No matter who wins the season, they both have demons to overcome extending far beyond their contentious attempts to rise to the top.
"The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel," James Hunt opines while sleeping his way through just about every woman who crosses his path. It is too bad "Rush" is unable to emulate that feeling of dangerous exuberance, its racing sequences pleasingly shot by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (2013's "Trance
"), but so concerned with weather-related aesthetics such as lighting the deluge of rain and banks of fog that it never comes close to extracting an emotional response. The film is rarely, if ever, genuinely thrilling no matter how fast the race cars zoom around the tracks, and the interpersonal scenes are just as pedestrian. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (2010's "Hereafter
") never establish Hunt and Lauda's relationship as anything particularly meaningful. So what if they didn't get along? Why is this worth making a movie about, and why should the audience put a stake in what happens to them? The narrative lazily whittles down their backstories into one-sentence voice-overs apiece, and all that is left are broad, off-putting personality strokes.
James Hunt is portrayed as unreliable and ego-centric, his studly magnetism not enough to keep most women around. It is just as well, since he seems to be more attracted to himself, staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror as he joins the mile-high club. Literally three minutes after meeting Suzy, he proposes to her, and in the next scene they are running joyously out of a wedding chapel, just married. Without any glimpse into their actual relationship, the next scene they share finds Suzy tired of his free-wheeling ways and breaking up with him. Hard-hitting, this film is not. Chris Hemsworth (2012's "The Avengers
") is let down by the picture's slack writing; he looks the part and has the appropriate swagger, but he never grows beyond a shallow construct.
Daniel Brühl (2009's "Inglourious Basterds
") has even less to work with as Niki Lauda, a great racer whose practical outlookand a nearly fatal accidentput a halt to his willingness to risk his life when he knows it isn't safe. Brühl exhibits little appeal, though it is tough to tell if the fault lies with the actor or the pedestrian, montage-heavy treatment of the narrative. As the guys' respective wives, Olivia Wilde (2013's "Drinking Buddies
") gives her best go at Suzy, a pitifully underwritten role not worthy of her talents, while Alexandra Maria Lara (2008's "The Reader
"), as Lauda's new wife, Marlene, is portrayed as virtual arm candy who has little to do but stand on the sidelines and watch her husband on television screens.
"Rush" is a strange title for a film that has very few thrills and spends so little time on any one race that it never rustles up much tension or the breathless excitement one might expect from a movie about Formula One drivers. If those things are what you want, seek out 2008's dazzling, candy-coated, sorely underappreciated "Speed Racer
" or even 2001's Sylvester Stallone ensemble action-drama, "Driven
," instead. Better yet, watch those movies regardless and leave "Rush," which lumbers for two hours across ineffectual terrain that moves quickly but doesn't breach beneath the surface of its story or characters. Perhaps there is a motion picture to be made about James Hunt, Niki Lauda and Formula One racing that treats its human subjects with depth and its sport of choice with the daring appeal and necessary adrenaline it deserves. This isn't that film. Not by a longshot.