I have never been much of an auto racing fan, but, like Wind before it on the list, Rush drew me in from the start.
Welcome back to my Top 50 Sports Movies list and the #41 show. Rush is based on the true story of Formula One drivers Englishman James Hunt (played by Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda of Austria (played by Daniel Bruhl). I’ve never been a huge fan of auto racing so naturally this one grabbed me from the start.
But first with our Formula One theme, it’s time for another installment of:
MOVIES SO BAD THEY’RE GOOD – DRIVEN
Sly Stallone had conquered boxing, copping and First, Second and Third blooding many times over but also soccering, assassining, cliffhanging, Judge Dredding, demolitioning and Get Cartering. Renny Harlin knew the millions clamoring for him to become the world’s most shredded Formula One driver couldn’t be denied any longer and cast him as washed-up racer Joe Tanto.
Joe is hired back to the number two slot on the Formula One team by owner Carl Henry who is played by wheelchair-bound Burt Reynolds who mostly rolls around being pissed off at everyone. I tried to imagine how that casting went:
Burt: “The f*ck I gotta be in a wheelchair for?!”
Renny: “Cuz I said so. You want the job or not??”
Tanto’s job is to mentor a young driver gunning for the championship played by Kip Pardue. Kip was coming off a star turn as QB Ronnie Bass in Remember the Titans and his performance in this pretty much ended efforts to make him a leading man.
There’s some plot about all of the above plus an always grumpy German driver who doesn’t want to give up his title but does manage to give up his girlfriend, Estella Warren, to Kip for awhile. Estella is a knockout but the acting, or lack thereof, displayed here cemented her solidly in the straight-to-video movie tier.
However, the racing is fun, the female leads Warren, Gina Gershon and Stacy Edwards look great, the bad acting and dialogue provide loads of unintentional comedy. It’s a giant mess and I never mind a rewatch.
There’s folks for whom the sound of an loud engine revving is almost a sexual experience. I am not one of those folks. That being said, I very much regret not seeing this in iMax or at least a regular theater. The music grabs you as you hear opening monologues narrated by Lauda then Hunt. They let everyone know where they stand right away while also giving hints their story will involve more than a simple rivalry.
Niki Lauda: “Twenty five drivers start every season in Formula One, and each year two of us die. What kind of person does a job like this? Not normal men, for sure. Rebels, lunatics, dreamers. People who are that desperate to make a mark, and are prepared to die trying. My name is Niki Lauda, and racing people know me for two things. The first is my rivalry with him. I don’t know why it became such a big thing. We were just drivers busting each other’s balls. To me this is perfectly normal, but other people saw it differently. That whatever it was between us went deeper. The other thing I’m remembered for is what happened on 1st August 1976, when I was chasing him like an asshole…”
James Hunt: “I have a theory why women like racing drivers… It’s not because they respect what we do, driving round and round in circles. Mostly they think that’s pathetic and they’re probably right. It’s our closeness to death. You see the closer you are to death the more alive you feel, the more alive you are. They can see that in you they feel that in you. My name is James Hunt. My father is a stock broker, my sister is a barrister, and my brother is an accountant, and I… well I do this. It’s a wonderful way to live, it’s the only way to drive, as if each day is your last.”
Directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland), Rush is a movie where the writing, music, sound and especially cinematography go together like a symphony throughout. The next line out of Lauda’s mouth is “Hey! Asshole!”, directed at Hunt after being spun out by him in a Division 3 Grand Prix race which Hunt then wins. Hunt and his boys let fly with some rat face jokes (Niki’s two protruding front teeth responsible for the resemblance) and German insults and the game is afoot.
Things start fast-forwarding towards the 1976 Formula 1 season after that. In order to fast track his way into the top division, Lauda takes out a loan against his own life insurance policy and buys his way onto a Formula 1 team. As part of his deal, he is allowed to redesign his car – with which the top driver then runs a lap 2 seconds faster than his own best time. Lauda then demands they rip up their original contract and pay him the same as Clay Regazzoni, the #1 driver, if they want him to share the design.
Unfortunately for Niki, he still can’t escape Hunt. He asks out the cute track manager – but finds out from teammate Clay he may want to cancel that date. Turns out she went out with Hunt who Clay informs him went all night long and then some, not a performance he’d want to follow. Date cancelled.
Hunt’s team and rich friend copy Lauda’s blueprint, buy a Hesketh and buy into Formula One. Since they are driving without a sponsor, the patch on the driving suit? Sex: Breakfast of Champions.
In a side quest, Hunt meets model Suzy Miller who is dating one of his friends. Naturally, he steals her then marries her after a romance of around 90 seconds. Suzy is played by Olivia Wilde and it’s always nice to have her aboard.
Lauda in his own side quest meets future wife Marlene leaving a party in Italy he has no desire to attend, so she offers him a ride. Her car breaks down and they are picked up by two dudes who give them a ride but insist the great Niki Lauda drive their car. At this point he is one of the top drivers and Marlene has no idea who he is and says he doesn’t look like a race car driver. The two dudes are fanboying hard and incredulous. They beg Niki to drive full blast and he agrees after Marlene dares him to prove it.
A wild ride through the country ensues and in the next scene it shows him winning a race and the 1975 Formula 1 championship. From the winner’s podium, he looks down at Marlene and says “Do I look like a race car driver now?”
James loses his ride after the 1975 season when his friend runs out of money and the team can’t find sponsorship. Hunt goes out on his own and gets a ride with McLaren and the legendary 1976 season begins. After 2nd and 1st place finishes, Hunt’s car is found to be illegally wide by 5/8” and his Spain victory is taken away. Trying bring the car within compliance causes issues and the engine blows in the next 2 races. To further complicate matters, Suzy divorces Hunt leaving him for the much older Richard Burton.
Side note – the races are amazingly filmed. Everything has that 70’s feel but with today’s HD and advanced sound effects. The world Ron Howard creates is masterful.
Following the divorce, Hunt drives with a new aggression in the McLaren car now fixed and fast again. He wins in France & England. Then the Spain DQ is overturned and his winners points are reinstated. When asked by a reporter for the reason for the turnaround, he replies “Big balls.”
Lauda is asked if it is possible for Hunt to catch him and replies no because he would have to win a lot of races and “pigs would have to fly”. Also, he and Marlene get married.
The German Grand Prix is next at the Nurburgring track. Due to the number of driver deaths over the years, it is known as The Graveyard.
To make matters worse, it is raining. Lauda calls a drivers meeting to say the race should be cancelled. Hunt argues by removing a race Niki’s making it easier for him to win the championship since no one can get points to catch up. They vote and the race goes forward. Hunt takes the pole. Due to trouble in the pits after a tire change, Lauda is far behind Hunt and chases to catch him. He famously crashes with the car engulfed in flame and his helmet knocked off.
(Crash imminent around the 2:45 mark)
With massive burns to his face and head and internal burns in his lungs, Lauda fights for his life. At one point, they believe his death is unavoidable and a priest begins to administer last rites. The doctor comes out to tell Marlene Nicki heard that going on and said “Tell the priest to fuck off. I’m still alive.” They had only been married a few months. His recovery begins and be warned much of that along with some of the burn scenes are honestly hard to watch.
As Lauda fights to recover, he watches Hunt close the gap winning races in his absence. Perhaps the most painful scene is watching a desperate to return Lauda try to put his racing helmet on over the burn damage on his face.
Niki attempts his comeback at the Italian Grand Prix in September six weeks after the accident. Speaking with him before the race, Hunt takes the blame for Niki’s injuries with which Niki quickly and curtly agrees. Then Niki also adds, “But trust me, watching you win those races while I was fighting for my life, you were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.”
Niki is in good spirits at a press conference with Hunt until a reporter asks Lauda if his wife will stay with him given how he now looks and presses the issue when Niki tries to joke it off. Niki declares “Fuck you. Press conference over,” and storms off. An enraged Hunt tells the reporter he has info for him, leads him away from everyone else and and promptly beats the shit out of him taking special care to work his face over. Great back-to-back scenes.
Lauda begins the race tentatively, but then steers through a crash unharmed (shades of Days of Thunder) and storms back to earn 3 points finishing 4th while Hunt is forced to retire with engine failure.
With the world championship on the line, it’s time for the last race of 1976, the Japanese Grand Prix in the shadow of Mt Fuji and all I could say rewatching it is wow. Hunt trails Lauda by 3 points in the championship standings with the two of them far ahead of the rest of the field.
Even with the deplorable conditions, the decision is made to go ahead with the race due to the number of people around the world who want to see Hunt vs. Lauda. They decide to start at the latest moment possible so that the race can finish before dark.
In the driving rain, Lauda retires early saying the risk is too much in those conditions. With Lauda out, Hunt must finish 3rd in the rainstorm to score enough points to take the title.
I was blown away by men driving like that with only their face shield protecting from the rain and water flying up from other cars’ tires – and no wipers to clear them. Insanity.
One can sense the mutual respect now present between the two. Mario Andretti starts on the pole, Hunt 2nd. Following Lauda’s retirement, Hunt seems to be cruising until late tire trouble causes him to pit which turns into far too long a stop dropping him back to 5th. His crew begs him not to risk trying to catch up with so few laps left in that weather.
Yeah, he’s not taking that advice.
Hunt finishes 3rd but the scoreboard still shows him 5th for some momentary controversy. The mistake as fixed as Hunt is apologizing to his crew for coming up short, but then realizing he has actually won the 1976 championship. You see Lauda’s disappointment but he can’t resist a little smile as he leaves.
It’s montage time again as Hunt celebrates exactly as one as one would expect.
The final scene, which is possibly the best in the movie (non-race division) has Hunt and Lauda meeting in a hanger where Niki is working on his private jet as Hunt is heading over to his with three or four girls on his arms.
He and Niki have an incredible exchange about getting ready for next season. They go back and forth with Hunt’s willingness to risk death, love of the beauty of the sport and the need to enjoy life versus Niki’s discipline, risk management theory and need to constantly be preparing. He begs James to get back on the track and start getting ready for the next season as James prepares to depart:
“So don’t let me down now. I need you busting my balls. Get back to work.”
“I will, Niki, I will. But I intend to enjoy myself first. Some of life needs to be for pleasure. I mean, what’s the point of having a million cups and medals and planes if you don’t have any fun? Now how is that winning? (pause) I’ll see you on race day, champ.”
“You know you look good, Niki. The only guy to have his face burnt off and it be an improvement.”
(Lauda smiles and flips him the bird as Hunt heads for his private jet and the next party.)
Nikki would win again in 1977 but Hunt would never win another title retiring only two years later. He died of a heart attack in 1993 at the age of 45. Here is Lauda’s final narration which becomes even more moving with some clips of the two men in real life:
(Skip to 1:45 mark for Niki’s final speech)
“People always think of us as rivals but he was among the very few I liked and even fewer that I respected. He remains the only person I envied.” – Niki Lauda
MOVIE VS REAL LIFE
I don’t know if this will be a regular thing for movies based on real life, but I couldn’t help but dig a little here, just really hoping they didn’t take too many liberties. I wasn’t disappointed.
An attempt to try and economize words this week failed miserably so we’re gonna fly through the categories:
Quality of Sports Scenes: Oh sweet baby Jay-sus. You have to ask? Score – ***** – Osborne
Music: Very, very solid. My favorite theme didn’t get played near as often as I wanted but small gripe. Score – **** – Devaney
Love Interest: I guess technically there’s two. One is Olivia Wilde. The other is Alexandra Maria Lara who played Marlene. She puts up with one of most prickly bastards ever – and doesn’t even think of leaving when he’s burned. Score – ***** – Osborne
Adrenalin/Goosebump Scenes: Being put at track level with full sound using the actual cars? Awesome. Doesn’t quite reach Rocky decking Apollo or Roy Hobbs destroying the lights but who does? Score – **** – Devaney
Comedy: The non-stop ball-busting between the two along with Hunt’s exploits keep it from turning too serious. Score – *** – Pelini
Unintentional Comedy: None I could find. Accents are genuine, acting is top notch, just a very professional production. Dammit. Score – no stars – Riley
The Training Montage: Non-existent. Hunt trains by drinking and screwing and Lauda plays with his engines. No criticism, just is what it is. Score -no stars – Riley
Rewatchability – Over time this has been surprisingly high for me. Score – **** – Devaney
OVERALL – Considering how much I don’t enjoy racing but do enjoy this movie, I’m gonna score it high. I would have bought a ticket to watch these two bicker in real life. Score – **** – Devaney
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