START YOUR ENGINES
SUCCESSFUL Hollywood films — not necessarily the best films — tend to stick to a formula. And one formula goes something like this. Take plenty of action (preferably with car chases), add some spectacular crashes and neardeath experiences, garnish with romantic subplots, and if possible include a sex scene in the first five minutes. I call this Hollywood’s Formula One. (Formula Two — young couple moves into an empty house and hears strange noises in the ceiling — has inspired quite a few good films of late, but that’s another formula.)
The good news is that Rush, Ron Howard’s excellent new action blockbuster, sticks closely to Formula One, and the result is something of a triumph. Quite by coincidence, Rush is a film about Formula One motor racing, a sport of which I know next to nothing. Whenever I see bits of it on TV I am confirmed in my view that no more stupid, dangerous, boring, anti-social and environmentally polluting sport has been devised by man, and my sympathy goes out to all residents of peaceful suburban neighbourhoods, including the good citizens of Albert Park in Melbourne, who find themselves living next to motor-racing circuits.
But putting aside all prejudice, I confess I was happily taken in by Rush — the latest entrant in a surprisingly crowded genre and, in the opinion of more knowledgeable critics than I, perhaps the best motor-racing film yet made.
Like many a quasi-fictional entertainment, it is ‘‘ based on a true story’’, and its strength lies in its superb evocation of character. At the centre of things are rival drivers from the so-called golden age of F1 in the 1970s, when, according to the best statistics, one or more drivers could be relied on to kill themselves on the racetrack every year. Between 1967 and 1975 — the production notes for Rush seem rather proud of the fact — 13 F1 drivers lost their lives. There was no more perilous track than the Nordschliefe (northern loop) at Nurburgring in Germany, a stretch with 177 turns nicknamed the ‘‘ Green Hell’’ by F1 racing legend Jackie Stewart (another fact I gleaned from the production notes). Lining up in pouring rain for the 1976 German Grand Prix were Austrian driver Niki Lauda, the reigning world champion, and his British challenger James Hunt, a charismatic figure on and off the track, renowned as a wit, womaniser and heavy boozer.
Both are flawed characters: Hunt the flamboyant playboy, reckless and crazy-brave; Lauda the straitlaced obsessive, devoted to a healthy lifestyle (‘‘I go to bed early’’), calculating in all things and a meticulous technician behind the wheel. I was never sure which of them I wanted to win. Lauda is played in subdued and cagy style by Daniel Bruhl ( Inglourious Basterds, The Bourne Ultimatum), and I’m ready to believe that he spoke English as flawlessly in real life as Bruhl does in the film (saving a lot of tedious subtitling). At one point Lauda likens his appearance to that of a rat, and somehow the description fits. It may even be mildly complimentary (rats, as we know, being intelligent and sociable creatures despite their prominent teeth and reputation for cowardice and treachery).
But the truly astonishing performance is that of Australian actor Chris Hemsworth as Hunt. I first saw him as the hammer-wielding hero of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, stepping from the relative obscurity of Home and Away to emerge as the embodiment of the old-style Hollywood leading man. With his magnificent torso, flowing blond hair and air of easy grace he looks not only like some Nordic god but remarkably like the photos I have seen of Hunt. Can this be another Aussie superstar in the making, rivalling Sam Worthington, the hero of James Cameron’s