It's debuted in Australia at last, and it's good, really good. It might be an independent Anglo-German film, but the man holding the stopwatch is Ron Howard, who also made that other masterpiece of bloke cinema, Apollo 13. It's amusing to think, at the time the real events of Rush were taking place, Ron was finishing up his stint as the child star of Happy Days. If you'd told anyone then that little Ritchie Cunningham would one day be one of Hollywood's most bankable directors, they'd probably have remarked that was about as likely as James Hunt being the 1976 World Champion.
Racing movies have never been big winners in the wider culture, presenting the Hollywood with two ways of bleeding the money hose. The better way is the way Steve McQueen chose with the greatest racing movie ever made, Le Mans. To his credit Steve was happy to let the cars - the Ferrari 512 and Porsche 917, two of the most evenly-match rivals of all time - have the spotlight, with decisive results. If you're a fan and you haven't seen it yet (wat?), you're going to need a TV with handles: Le Mans is one of the tensest, moodiest, most edge-of-seat cinema experiences you'll ever have, and it gave us one of the iconic lines of the business - "Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting" - given to McQueen, but originally coined by the even more debonair Maurice Trintignant.
But face it, fellow hardcore fans, there aren't actually that many of us; to an audience of normals, Le Mans is boredom on celluloid. There's no plot to speak of, the entire script could be printed out on a single A4 page, and only the barest implied character development and some fake names raises it above being a straight documentary.
Not a problem faced by the other greatest racing movie ever made, John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix, which takes place over a fictionalised 1966 Grand Prix season. Unlike Le Mans, it has characters alright, big ones. There's dialogue, actual story, and some of the most spectacular footage of cars in motion ever captured by a camera, made all the more awesome by the fact those special effects are not effects. Frankenheimer just strapped cameras to racing cars, put his actors in them and told them to thrash it.
Unfortunately, Frankenheimer went too far the other way, jumping the start and rushing right past drama into melodrama. It wasn't enough to explore the psyche of old world racing drivers, a band of brothers suffering casualties in the ranks, the haunting knowledge they could be next and the constant, needling itch to beat each other. No, we had to have them sleeping with each others' wives and bringing domestic bitterness into the mix as well, as if some intern dropped the script on the way to filming and the pages got shuffled up with the pilot for Desperate Housewives. Frankenheimer was out to make an oldschool Hollywood epic, and he mostly succeeded (the strange multi-frame format of some shots is there because, like Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey, Grand Prix was meant to be seen in Cinerama. If you've only seen either film on the small screen, you've only seen an approximation. Cinerama is said to be something else). But the contrast between the grandeur of the racing and the petty relationship drama is so jarring it can be tough to really get into either half of the movie.
So that's the good way to fail, to make a highly accurate film that gets the racing fans raving but leaves everyone else cold. The other way is to make a brainless action movie that just happens to involve racing cars. Stallone went this way when he lost creative control of CART embarrassment Driven (you knew it was coming), the bastard child I'll always defend, not because it's a good movie under all the dreck (it's not), but because it was supposed to be something else altogether. His original plan was a biopic of Ayrton Senna, which, when he couldn't get it off the ground, morphed into a character drama about fictitious Formula 1 drivers (hence tropes like an arrogant, seemingly-unbeatable German in red and a ruthless wheelchair-bound team boss). But late in the day the studio remembered Sly wasn't actually that good a writer and his character-driven movie wasn't going to work, so they brought in Renny "Cliffhanger-was-my-only-good-movie" Harlin, who gave them the action flick they wanted - fast cars, crashes, 'splosions, and Estella Warren in a red bikini. A film whose most memorable moment was the joy ride through the streets of Chicago.
That scene is gratuitous, stupid, multiple kinds of impossible, and the best bit of the whole damn movie. Yes, it shatters any hope this could be a serious IndyCar story, but that's okay, because the serious scenes are like watching your dad dance - the more seriously he takes it, the more cringeworthy it becomes. Besides, if you've never daydreamed of doing your daily commute in a thousand-horsepower open-wheel racing car, you're dead inside and we probably can't be friends. As soon as he read the script Renny Harlin knew what movie this was going to be, and built in all the right comedy beats: newspaper stand, radar trap, hot babe impersonating Marilyn Monroe; check, check, checkmate.
Then there's Days Of Thunder. Moving on...
For me, the best part of Rush is the moment just before the race at the Nurburgring, when Daniel Bruhle as Niki Lauda tries to get the other drivers to back him in boycotting the race. Chris Hemsworth gets the motion overturned, then as everyone leaves, quietly takes him aside and murmurs, "See? Sometimes it helps to have people like you." That was the moment I realised Niki was the interesting half of this story. Never mind Hunt, he's your usual sports movie protagonist - talented maverick, must find the strength and discipline within himself, yadda yadda, seen it before thanks. Howard could put the same character in a Mighty Ducks film and wouldn't have to change a thing (except taking out the rough sex with fast women. Maybe). By all accounts, Chris Hemsworth is not James Hunt. Hemsworth is becoming a bit of an Australian Jensen Ackles, his career going from strength to strength, so he's calm and brimming with self-confidence. Not the best casting choice for a man who mimed extreme confidence and extraversion to hide his crippling inferiority complex. Although Hemsworth looks the part and does a fantastic job parroting James' magnificent voice, nobody with pecks like that can play a man as complex as Hunt. The end.
But those in the know say Daniel Bruhle is Niki Lauda, and Bruhle's Niki is something of a tragic hero. He doesn't discover his beloved Marlene is actually his mother, slaughter everyone in Scuderia Ferrari in a rage and then commit suicide out of shame and grief, but the movie does infuse his journey with lots of other tropes cribbed from Fenzel's excellent dissection of Robocop (go read the whole thing). He starts off attaining a great height from which to fall, only to be brought down by his harmatia or tragic flaw, his aforementioned disregard for the good regard of others. Because of it he is made to suffer greatly, struggle back from the brink of death, and so redeem himself, becoming a man who appreciates being married to a supermodel as much as he should.
|Well, she's okay, y'know, but I think I can do better.|
And suffer he does. The hospital scene where he gets his lungs vacuumed is one of the most squirmingly uncomfortable things I've ever seen, a sequence with an almost Hellraiser quality of cartoonish flesh-re-arrangement and offbeat sexual symbolism (he is deepthroating a long silver tube, after all).
Other Aristotelian tropes present includemythos (story) and ethos (characters), both written by Real Life; melos (music) and lexis (words - every line, however memorable, has a deftness to it that kicks the story along beautifully); it has some pretty savage peripateia (reversal), most obviously Niki's crash at the 'Ring that throws the championship open for James; and most importabtly, it has opsis - spectacle.
Of all these elements, opsis is the one Ron had to get right. Opsis was the thing that made Grand Prix (with its soap-opera plot) and Le Mans (with no plot at all) the twin Spartan kings of the genre. Rush gets this stuff right, and the results are spectacular. The races are bruising, visceral and strangely beautiful. Unlike Driven, the CGI doesn't try to be absolutely realistic, aiming for a more dreamlike hyperrealistic style that hushes up the part of your brain that would otherwise complain it doesn't look right. The racing looks like something out of a dream, interspersed with CSI-like super-closeups of things mechanical: a wheel being bolted on (from the inside!) or valves popping against the sea of flame below. Rush has plenty of opsis, and that's why it can get away with the boobs and the blood - the racing driver's life is a state of heightened reality, delivering higher highs and lower lows than the rest of us can really imagine.
And the truly remarkable thing? It's a compact little film that's nothing like as bloated as Grand Prix or this very blog. It's a racing movie that pays its dues to history but then - and this is important - goes on to work as a movie. I think that deserves a trip to the cinema, don't you?