Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/26/13 21:50:58

"Down Shift"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

I always find it fascinating when a film takes a subject that I have no particular interest in and figures out a way to make it into a compelling moviegoing experience despite my lack of any significant background knowledge regarding the topic at hand. For example, I cannot say that I have ever considered the lives and experiences of counselors dealing with troubled teenagers to be enticing dramatic fodder but I still found the current "Short Term 12" to be a fairly powerful moviegoing experience because the filmmakers presented the material in an undeniably engrossing manner that I responded to instantly. The problem with "Rush," the latest film from Ron Howard, is that it deals with a subject that I had no particular interest in going into the screening and even less interest in afterwards. From a technical standpoint, it is impressive and those who do have some prior rooting interest in the subject may well indeed find it worth watch but I have to admit that there was never a single instance in which I found myself genuinely caring about the subject in general or the story it was relating.

The subject this time around is the world of Formula One racing and the story involves the real-life rivalry that developed during the mid-Seventies between two of its best-known drivers, Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). On the surface, they seem to have much in common--both came from privileged backgrounds that they rejected in order to pursue a career in racing, both eventually bought their way into the top tier of Formula racing rather than waste time and risk disaster in the lower level and both demonstrated extraordinary skill sets on the track. The key difference between the two lay in their approach towards racing and, to a greater extent, life itself. Hunt is a cheerful hedonist who is as brash and impulsive on the track as he is off of it. Lauda, on the other hand, is cool, clipped and precise in all regards, an approach that works wonders for him behind the wheel but which causes him to be a personality-free cold fish in even the most rudimentary social situations.

The conflict between the two begins right from their first encounter at a Formula 3 race when Hunt beats Lauda using a risky move that could have resulted in both of them crashing and continues as they work their way up the ranks, culminating in the fateful 1976 racing season that finds them as the two serious contenders for the championship. For the first part of the season, Lauda wins race after race but around the halfway point, Hunt begins to come from behind to threaten his lead. The competition comes to a head (and this is the point where people unfamiliar with the story should bow out) in Germany where the already-dangerous track is made even more treacherous by the rain. Lauda insists that the conditions are too unsafe and that the race should be cancelled but Hunt, after pointing out that a cancellation would essentially give the ahead-on-points Lauda the championship, sways the other drivers into going ahead with it. During the race, Lauda's fears come true as he gets into a gruesome accident that lands him in the hospital with horrific burns to his face and lungs. In his absence, Hunt manages to catch up in the standings but his victories have the additional effect of spurring Lauda on in his rehabilitation. Astoundingly, a mere six weeks after nearly roasting to death in his car, Lauda is back behind the wheel in Japan for the final race of the season to go against Hunt one last time.

One of the reasons that I have never cared that much about auto racing as a sport, either on film or in real life, is that for all of the life-and-death implications, watching cars and their drivers going through their high-speed paces while trying not to go up in flames is the kind of thing that can get very tedious very quickly. One of the most stunning things about "Rush" is the way that Howard and his technical crew have used the vast resources at their disposal to essentially put viewers inside the cars--and occasionally even under the hood--and recreate both the dangerous nature of the sport and the giddy thrills that keep the drivers coming back for more when common sense would suggest otherwise. More impressively, they stage the scenes in ways that never become too repetitive or confusing. Although I would still contend that John Frankenheimer's 1966 epic "Grand Prix" remains the gold standard for presenting auto racing on the big screen, "Rush" is nevertheless an undeniably impressive achievement in that respect.

The trouble with the film is that while it does an excellent job of putting us into the cars, it never figures out a way of putting us inside the heads of the people driving them in order to fully understand what is driving them. Oh sure, there is the usual stuff about the rush that drivers get but screenwriter Peter Morgan fails to probe any further in a way that might allow those of us without much interest in the world of auto racing to really understand what the attraction is. Instead, he is content to offer up a story that is basically "Amadeus" at 140 MPH and which laboriously stresses the ways in which Lauda and Hunt are two sides of the same coin long after everyone in the theater has gotten that particular point. This notion comes the most ham-fistedly in the scenes chronicling the bumpy relationships between the drivers and their increasingly estranged wives--Hunt's fashion model wife (Olivia Wilde) gets so sick of his wild and dissolute ways that she runs into the comparatively calm arms of none other than Richard Burton while Lauda's wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to truly connect with anything not on four wheels. As Hunt and Lauda, Hemsworth and Bruhl both do good work but never quite manage to scratch beneath the surface to play anything other than their broad archetypes.

Again, I must stress that "Rush" is an impressive technical achievement and those who already have a keen interest in Formula One racing are likely to enjoy it a lot. However, it never quite manages to sell either its story or its sport to the non-fan contingent and for them, the film will come across as little more than a collection of impressive race scenes that never really add up to anything when all is said and done. Hell, even Howard's previous directorial foray into the world of cars--his 1977 demolition derby directorial debut "Grand Theft Auto"--was, for all its obvious clumsiness and silliness, a far more engaging work in the long run than this. From an action standpoint, "Rush" blasts its way to the head of the pack but from a dramatic standpoint, it never quite gets out of the pits.

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