Ron Howard's Rush begins promisingly with three-time Formula One world champ Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) looking over his competition, namely the British James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). It's the day of the 1976 German Grand Prix, in which Lauda received intense burns from a crash precipitated by bad track conditions, and in voiceover, he self-effacingly describes the nature of his obsession. It's a funny moment of honesty, a genius of sorts buoyantly owning up to his flaws, but it's a red herring in the end. As the film traces the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda throughout the better part of the 1970s, it becomes clear that the filmmakers prefer to focus on Hunt's swaggering charm and daring rather than Lauda's cold technical brilliance and precision.
This pitting of a gaudy showman against a near-reptilian intellect brings to mind the power struggle at the heart of Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan's last collaboration, 2008's Frost/Nixon. To a certain sect, the competition between Lauda and Hunt might carry a similar importance as the relationship between David Frost and Richard Nixon, but their rivalry isn't particularly what the filmmakers are interested in. Howard's main fascination with how these two men toy with fatalism via their sport, but the film never seems to take death all that serious, not unlike Hunt. When we first meet him, he boasts by describing how being a driver and being so consistently close to death turns women on. Even the dissolution of his backing by Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay) and his marriage, to Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), don't cause much more than a brief frustrated yelp from Hunt. His world is without conflict by design, to the point that it amplifies the damage done to Lauda to a level of near-sadism.
Indeed, Lauda's recovery after his 1976 crash is graphically detailed, including a wince-worthy lung-vacuuming scene. By comparison, Hunt seems perpetually on the verge of shouting out "YOLO!" And it makes sense up to a point, as Howard is primarily a believer in courage of any sort, most grimly expressed in Mel Gibson's character's call for the head of his son's kidnapper in Ransom. It would be far easier to align with Howard's philosophy in this instance if he didn't more or less belittle Lauda's technical knowledge, obsession with safety, and brutal opinionating in the trade. When Lauda wins, the director focuses not on his triumph, but on Hunt's defeat, and we don't see Lauda open up to anyone until near the end, when he admits to a corrosive need to win during a midnight confession to his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara). And Howard's by-the-seat-of-your-pants aesthetic makes the slower, darker sequences feel hurried and bland, especially when stacked up next to the racing sequences.
Howard's entire end game seems to be in the very title. When looking for a rush, the source doesn't necessarily matter, as long as it serves that one purpose, and the film succeeds at that, moving along quickly and confidently, with the cast bringing out some intermittent pleasant notes of humor and sadness in the script. The racing scenes are exciting and genuinely fun, though they could stand to lose the fuck-yeah rock songs that seem to kick in whenever a character goes above 55mph. But just like any other rush, the thrill of Howard's latest wears off and what's left is a star vehicle, enthusiastically crafted but without much to speak of under the hood.