Has any director in history turned a distinct lack of style into a bigger advantage than Ron Howard?
That's not a dig at the man. Far from it, actually. His success harkens to directors of the studio system heyday, churning out product not through a burning something to say, but because filmmaking is a job, and that job requires you to say something. Clean, no-frills storytelling still requires precision and artistry, if you consider "artistry" the willingness to stand back and know when to not try too hard. The movies might be his. They're just not his.
Howard, more often than not, is a competent pizza delivery man who takes great pride in his job. You get exactly what you ordered, on time and at the agreed-upon price, and he doesn't even stick around like a jerk waiting for a tip. That's why when he makes something unexpectedly fun like "Rush," it hits with an added jolt. This isn't a for-hire director shooting the script. This is Richie Cuningham waking up one day and deciding to be the Fonz!
You know what? It actually works. Maybe this is just what happens to a director when he realizes his last movie was a Kevin James/Vince Vaughn comedy, but Ron Howard strove for something kinetic and layered and adult, and damn if he doesn't (mostly) pull it off.
Set in the rarely-visited world of Formula One racing, "Rush" concerns the true story of two drivers whose star is on the rise - James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, relishing the opportunity to show some personality) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). As portrayed in Peter Morgan's screenplay, Hunt cares more about celebrity than the intricacies of racing itself, while Lauda approaches winning with level-headed rationality, believing it can be taught like any science. Morgan argues their clashing personalities drove each other to succeed more than spouses or coaches or prizes, to the point that they need the half of a person that the other provides. Why, an observant viewer might even say they're two sides of the same coin.
Lets start with what "Rush" isn't. It isn't deep. Once Morgan and Howard establish the yin and yang relationship of the characters, there aren't many ways to go but sideways. Hunt pulls Lauda one way. Lauda pulls him in the other. Morgan's screenplay doesn't follow a theme as much as it establishes a theme and replays it. All this is interesting on a conceptual level, but dramatically it falls short, as the lives of these men never sizzle as much as when they're behind the wheel.
"Rush" also isn't sexy, at least not as much as it thinks it is. Set free by the limitless R rating, Howard reminds us that he's also the guy who made the bawdy 80s comedy "Night Shift," but he's also the guy who made the PG...most everything else. "Rush" so clearly wants to delight in the decadence of celebrity, tossing bare breasts and champagne around with a devil-may-care casualness. Something about it feels oddly off, though. If it's sexy, it's sexy like a trembling, nerdy virgin traveling to Amsterdam hoping to meet a high class prostitute. Her moves might feel erotic, but that don't mean they're real.
But enough wet blanket talk. Where "Rush" shines, and I mean really shines, is the kinetic gamesmenship on display. On the track, it feels more alive and visceral than almost any racing movie I can remember. Howard often finds himself lashed for his trademarked "solid" craftsmanship, but here it's set to full, clear-eyed advantage. His wide establishing shots allow understanding of geography. Crisp editing creates consistent placement in the action - we know where everyone is and where they're trying to be. And virtuoso special effects push the races to "You are there" extremes, with the tires almost flinging mud in our faces. Here is a movie where 3D would be superfluous.
This same earnestness carries over to the dynamic between our two leads. "Rush" doesn't have a lot to say about the nature of human nature or competition, but lets also consider how it's saying it. Grab any sports movie about a personal rivalry at random and you're almost sure to find a clear-cut pro- and antagonist. Maybe they reach the inevitable begrudging respect. Maybe they even become friends in a sequel. But the dividing lines are clear - this is who you root for, and this is who stands in his way.
"Rush" travels the far more interesting route of shifting protagonists. As the movie progresses, sometimes even within a single scene, our loyalties move like a sliding scale. Our desire to see Hunt win is never greater than Lauda, and vice versa. By the destined "big race" in the end, one character makes a crucial decision that all but guarantees victory for the other, and yet when that victory comes, our fists aren't driven to pump. Victory and defeat aren't on "Rush's" mind. Instead it crafts two well-defined characters and asks us to consider what they mean for each other. A worthy, even noble, goal for a sports movie. You half-expect them to pull a "Rocky III" and challenge each other to a private race in the end, freeze framing just as they hit the gas.
More than anything, "Rush" represents Howard's glee of playing in the sandbox. All too willing to stand as a punching bag for those who believe themselves above the middlebrow, Howard still seems to like making movies. I mean, really just likes making them. "Rush" takes a while to find its feet (the first half feels noticeably muddier as we get used to the ping-pong structure between Hemsworth and Brühl), and once it does, it's content to hit the beats.
Howard's earnestness shines above all, though. As long as he believes in the story this much, I'm willing to go along for the ride. "Rush" doesn't add up to as much as it could, but it has a blast doing so.