Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Rush: Good Normal Movie or Bad Sports Movie? Or Both? Or Neither?

Thor and that "heroic" Nazi from Inglorious Basterds drive around in fast cars. Vin Diesel not in film.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Rush is, for the most part, a good movie.

I'm not sure Rush is a good sports movie. I'm not even sure it *is* a sports movie. It might just be a movie.

The film centers around the rivalry of Formula 1 drivers James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth - the one that plays Thor, not the one that had a knife roundhouse kicked into his chest by Jean-Claude Van Damme in Expendables 2) and Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl - the Nazi who hit on Melanie Laurent and the fake Joseph Goebbels made a movie about in Inglorious Basterds, also the guy who showed up for one scene in The Bourne Ultimatum as the brother of Matt Damon's dead girlfriend), in particular their back-and-forth 1976 season. 

The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes reads as follows, emphasis my own: 

"A sleek, slick, well-oiled machine, Rush is a finely crafted 
sports drama with exhilarating race sequences and strong 
performances from Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl."

That's a pretty good synopsis of the film. I put "sports drama" in bold face because I think it's important to distinguish it from a generic "sports movie." It's more than that. It doesn't have the cookie-cutter storyline of the good guy underdog who must overcome adversity and the brash bad guy who will inevitably lose. Obviously, the main reason for that is such a storyline does not exist. It's based on a true story, which involves two drivers who each offer reasons to root for them and reasons to root against them.

This makes it a difficult movie to judge - you aren't quite sure who you're supposed to be rooting for, and the driver you are rooting for seems to shift back and forth throughout the movie. "Sports movies" aren't supposed to force the audience to make those distinctions - the narrative does it for them. But a "sports drama" doesn't follow those rules - it challenges the viewer to make difficult decisions that don't have a right or a wrong answer, and that's what Rush does. Part of the credit goes to the true story that the film is based on, but much of the credit also goes to Hemsworth and Brühl, who play their parts very well, and to Ron Howard, who crafted a complex and nuanced way to tell the story.

People going to the movie expecting a cliched A-B-C story arc with redemption for the "good guy" at the end will be disappointed. Objectively, it's a "better" movie than that (from an artistic perspective), but that might make it less enjoyable for an audience expecting a simpler movie experience.

Here are five ups and five downs for Rush:

Up: The film's "R" rating allowed it to go in directions many sports movies can't (because many sports movies are geared towards kids and families). In particular, boobs. Like, five minutes in.

Down: It's hard to watch the movie and not compare it to Senna, the 2010 documentary about Formula 1 racer Ayrton Senna, probably the definitive take on auto racing in recent years.

Up: Chris Hemsworth really knocks the long-haired party boy role out of the park. He did it in Thor and ran it back in Rush. The part is right in his wheelhouse and he makes the best of it.

Down: They waste Olivia Wilde. The role she plays (Hunt's wife Suzy Miller) isn't nearly big enough (or important enough) to justify an actress as talented and famous as Wilde. They should have either beefed up the part or chosen a different actress who would be better able to disappear into the character.

Up: The racing sequences are very good. On a 50-foot screen, they're even better.

Down: Everything looks better on a 50-foot screen, and even in that format, the racing sequences still left something to be desired. I left the theater feeling satisfied with the effects, but not blown away.

Up: Strong use of montage. Some might call it a sports movie cliche, I call it a welcome staple.

Down: It's a racing movie that does not feature Vin Diesel. This can only be seen as a negative.

Up: The arc of each of the two individual drivers follows a fairly predictable path - height, followed by setback, followed by redemption. However, the two stories overlap in such a way that the two are never at the exact same point. While one is rising, the other is falling, but when it seems like one is rising back up to take the upper hand, the other rises even higher before falling again. The arcs are neither symmetrical nor parallel, which might seem confusing but actually produces are rather unique story.

Down: The timeline is rather confusing for the first quarter of the movie. It starts in 1976, before flashing back to 1970 and working it's way back to 1976. However, there isn't much that hints about where along that 1970-1976 timeline you are as it's happening. Hemsworth meets Wilde in one scene, and then it immediately cuts to their wedding. The story progresses at a normal speed but it seems like there are gaps of months, or even years, and it feels rather abrupt when the story returns to 1976.

Final Verdict: 3.5 stars (out of 5); probably worth seeing in theaters, but would more highly recommend waiting for the DVD/On Demand. 

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