Director Ron Howard has gotten Oscar attention for two movies: A Beautiful Mind (won), and Frost/Nixon (nominated). Both of these films had strong central, interlocking characters which can only be described as “frenemies.” Each man’s inner-strength was spurred by, and depended on, his counterpart. In A Beautiful Mind, Ed Harris’ shadowy William Parcher mentally tangos with brilliant madman John Forbes Nash Jr., (Russell Crowe) using and abusing his illness, yet driving the mathematician to greater heights. In Frost/Nixon, the psych-outs are quieter, more calculated and chess-like. It’s check/checkmate, as Frank Langella and Michael Sheen go head-to-head for their respective reputations.
This formula for success, if you’ll pardon the pun, is abundantly evident in Howard’s Formula 1 racing movie, Rush. Not only is it based on (and quite faithful to) a true story like those other two movies, but it’s also cast impeccably.
Taking place in the swinging 70s, we follow two speed racers: one a playboy, the other playing-it-safe. Chris Hemsworth’s hedonistic London-lad good looks, complete with blonde hair in a shag (so to speak) and blue eyes mischievous enough to evaporate women’s underwear in a glance, makes him picture perfect as James Hunt. His counterpart is Niki Lauda: Austrian, straitlaced, stone-faced, and far more interested in wheels than women. He’s portrayed flawlessly by Daniel Brühl, who manages to bring a human heart to the frostily reserved exterior. Major kudos must also go to Howard, for revealing these men’s personalities little by little through their private relationships, their public rivalry in the press, their personal enmity on the track. Each had a completely different approach, yet they were both successful. But we all know: there can be only one winner.
Set against the sexy and glamorous golden age of Grand Prix racing, Howard, along with his DP Anthony Dod Mantle (who usually works with Danny Boyle, and also shot the sumptuous Antichrist for Lars Von Trier), bring this world to life in a very real, yet heightened, manner with sin-soaked color saturation, racecars in blurs, and steely-eyed determination in sharp focus. What’s more, the soundtrack, peppered with the hits of the day (Bowie’s “Fame” is especially well-placed), doesn’t overtake Hans Zimmer’s unusually restrained score.
Yes, it’s formulaic; but thrillingly so. Yes, it’s more accessible than arty; but it’s still a handcrafted film. When James and Niki are pushed to the breaking point of physical and psychological endurance, we feel it… and see it. Rush may not have the gravitas to be a truly great film, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable one.
Bonus Review: Empire State
Can’t get enough Hemsworth-in-a-true story? Check out Chris’ brother Liam in Empire State, new on Blu-ray and DVD. Don’t be fooled by Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson taking the forefront on the box cover, and don’t think twice about exploding armored security truck on the back. Empire State is actually a more dramatic thriller and is less about shoot-em-ups than it is about how greed can affect friendships and family. Hemsworth plays Chris Potamitis, a real-life security guard, who was part of the largest cash heist in U.S. history (roughly $11 million).
Told mostly through Chris' point of view, as we see how easy it is to let outer influences get in the way of common sense. In this case, the main catalysts are Chris’ BFF, lowlife New York hustler Eddie (Michael Angarano, bringing to mind a younger Sam Rockwell), and Chris’ honest, hard-working dad, Jimmy (Paul Ben-Victor) who loses his job after working hard all his life. The money will make a huge difference in each of their their lives… not to mention, the local mobsters and the cops (namely Det. James Ransone, played very well by The Rock, in a non-showy role).
While Empire State doesn’t quite come together in terms of character development and motivation, it’s still a well-acted, fun-setting period piece (New York in the 70s… a different world!), and it’s a kick to see the real Chris Potamitis at the end.