Ron Howard's Rush is a study of contrasts. It is ostensibly so because it chronicles the heated rivalry between race car drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda that dominated the Formula 1 circuit in the 1970s. Though Howard likely did not intend it to be, it also showcases both some of the most stale tropes that are killing sports movies AND the type of storytelling that could help to save them.
Hunt and Lauda are portrayed by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, respectively, as they work their way up the ranks to auto racing's biggest global stage.
At first, the differences between the Austrian and the Englishman feel overplayed, as if someone thought the absurd rivalry between Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard in Talladega Nights would work in a serious film too. Hemsworth's Hunt is a cavalier playboy who sleeps with supermodels and takes Ricky Bobby's "if-you're-not-first-you're-last" mantra to heart. Bruhl's Lauda is a rat-faced wet blanket obsessed with precision machinery and blessed with an exacting mind (and rear end, as he points out) that enables his success. He's much more cautious than his counterpart, but also more successful initially on the F1 circuit.
Once the relationship between Hunt and Lauda is established -- along with the ones between Hunt and his estranged wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde) and Lauda and his wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) -- the film trains its focus on the dramatic 1976 season and picks up considerable steam.
The uptick in momentum is owed to two principal factors. First, there is the inherent cinematic value of vrooming, zooming race cars whipping around a road course. Perhaps more than any other sport on film, there's a glorious authenticity to auto racing movies that your run-of-the-mill Hoosiers knockoff can't match. Second, the story tones itself down just enough to be unique and interesting rather than ridiculous.
As Lauda and Hunt jockey for position at each stop on the circuit, as the stakes get higher and higher, as the danger comes to a head at Nurburgring, Germany, where Lauda is left badly hurt and permanently disfigured due to a fiery wreck, you are treated to a terrific depiction of what an athletic rivalry is really like. The flaws of Lauda and Hunt are exposed; the former is terse, prickly and joyless, the latter is unserious, unsafe and maybe even a bit dimwitted. Also exposed is their symbiotic relationship. They badly want to beat each other, but there is an underlying and begrudging respect, probably because each driver knows that, without the other, they probably wouldn't be quite as good.
Thankfully, Rush is not a good-vs.-evil showdown or a David-vs.-Goliath underdog triumph tale. Instead, it's an exploration of and explanation for what motivates athletes at the highest level -- what might make a man climb back in to the driver's seat mere weeks after being swallowed up and spit out by an 800-degree inferno. Had it done a little more showing and a little less telling and dumped its more unwieldy plot devices (Wilde and Lara have almost nothing to do for two-plus hours), it might have been something more.