Rush ★★★

An hour into Ron Howard’s film about the heated rivalry between Formula One drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and I was struggling to understand how it had achieved such widespread critical praise. It possessed all the verve and finesse of a typical Howard picture with a clunky script to match. Yet, come the story’s pivotal turning point and the film quickly shifts gear and becomes a different proposition entirely.

The battle between Hunt, the talented playboy, and Lauda, the analytical professional, ranks as one of the sport’s finest rivalries which culminated in the incident-packed 1976 season which left an indelible mark on both men. It is hardly surprising the story appealed to Hollywood as it featured glamour, perilous danger and conflicting personalities - it was practically ready-made for the silver screen.

What is perhaps more surprising is that Ron Howard would helm a project brimming with passion and high-octane thrills. Howard is a filmmaker able to adapt to most genres but he seems incapable of leaving much of an impression. Whilst his films are rarely terrible (recent missteps excluded) there is a workmanlike efficiency to them that always stops them from becoming truly great.

Thankfully, Rush, is his best film since Frost/Nixon, another story about a historically significant rivalry played out in front of the television cameras. Yet whereas that story unfolded in TV studios and hotel rooms, Rush plays out in the gladiatorial arenas of the world’s most famous race tracks. Smartly blending archive footage and sensitive digital effects, Howard and his team of artists evocatively recapture the competition and camaraderie of racing.

Unfortunately, Rush suffers from a number of gremlins that cause it to stall on the starting grid. Working once again with screenwriter, Peter Morgan, the film suffers from a broad and clumsy script that lays on the exposition thick without getting under the skin of its two duelling protagonists. Morgan has made a career out of scripts centred on two strong-willed individuals but he paints with such broad strokes in the opening hour that he reduces complicated men to mere caricatures.

Their rivalry is simplified to easily digestible differences whilst the actors have to trip over some genuinely woeful dialogue that offers easy to understand exposition for the hard of thinking. It’s hard to imagine it was penned by the same man that wrote the likes of Longford and other complicated character studies.

Perhaps what makes the first half all the more galling is that come the fateful day that transformed both men’s lives the film too takes on its own transformation. Gone is the crude characterisation and obsession with Hunt’s hedonistic lifestyle and instead the film finds its heart as Lauda finally becomes an equal member in this story of determination, death and driving.

The film’s shift in focus finally explores the individuals as proper characters. They may still have very different outlooks in life but the movie no longer wallows in them and it changes from simple rivalry to mutual respect and comradeship. The fact the racing, rather than kitsch period details, are brought to the fore also helps elevate the second half. Thanks to Anthony Dod Mantle’s kinetic and exhilarating race cinematography (every inch of the race cars seems to have a camera attached to it) the film brilliantly brings the classic races to life and puts the audience directly into the life and death action.

The central performances also seem to grow with the film. Both actors certainly look the part, Chris Hemsworth with his playboy good looks and Daniel Brühl with his calculated determination, but it takes a little while for both men to find their feet. Hemsworth struggles with a wonky British accent whilst Brühl has difficulties with bringing warmth to a cold character. Yet by the end both men command the film which is all the more impressive for Brühl as he finds sympathy in a character that could have easily been overshadowed by the crushing charisma of James Hunt.

Rush is an incredibly uneven movie but when it finally finds the right gear it is a crowd-pleasing delight.