‘Rush’: race car movies still box office poison

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rushWhy are movies about race car drivers such a hard sell?

Huge stars have flopped in this mini-genre, even at the height of their popularity.

Few remember the Steve McQueen picture “Le Mans” — which cost a fortune and lost a bundle — or the Paul Newman vehicle, “Winning.”

Sylvester Stallone probably still rues the day he signed on for “Driven” and the career of the great director John Frankenheimer stalled after he made the very expensive Cinerama turkey “Grand Prix.”

Ron Howard has been experiencing the same phenomenon with his well- reviewed mid-1970s Formula One period piece “Rush,” which has been slowly dying in multiplexes since it opened two weeks ago. I caught it two nights ago at an eerily deserted multiplex screening.

rush1“Rush” mixes a strong human drama with high-powered racing scenes as it examines the rivalry between British playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) who were world champion drivers with very different philosophies.

Hunt refused to stop indulging in his hedonistic lifestyle. Lauda applied his determined Teutonic temperament to the sport, winning in a seemingly joyless manner.

“Rush” is an amazing visual experience, blending period footage with new material in a completely seamless manner — the unusual accuracy of the clothing and hairstyles will give the movie a time capsule quality for older moviegoers.

The film also works as gripping drama after Lauda is in a terrible accident and has to go through a grueling recovery regime (the scene in which the driver’s burned lungs are treated by doctors is more grueling than anything in a modern horror film).

Daniel Bruhl is a terrific young actor — with work spanning “Goodbye Lenin” and “Inglorious Basterds” — but he is especially good here.

Through subtle make-up work, the handsome actor becomes the “ugly” driver and eventually he makes us come to respect the reserved Austrian’s strict work ethic. Not an easy accomplishment when Bruhl has to compete with scenes showing the very attractive Hemsworth indulging in a wide variety of vices.

“Rush” is a good movie that deserves to be seen on a large screen but as of last week it had failed to return half of the $40 million production budget (a low one considering all of the period details, as well as the CGI and very sophisticated graphics).

Perhaps if there were more personal scenes, and fewer races, the picture might have clicked with a much wider audience.

Joe Meyers

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8 Responses

  1. K. Anuar says:

    I just finished watching the movie on video. Didn’t watched it in theater because watching the trailers, I thought it was another “Driven” type of movie.I thought it was more on playboy lifestyle of James rather than racing. That was what the trailers all about. I was wrong. It is a heck of a racing movie. Should have watched it in theater. Gonna watch it again

  2. woodpkr says:

    How did “The Days of Thunder” do? I think Rush was a much better story and friends I recommended really liked it…even if they had a date or wife with them. The women liked it too! But I think most guys thought they wouldn’t.

  3. pmiranda says:

    The other movies mentioned, while having good racing scenes, have absolutely abysmal stories. Driven deserves some sort of anti-award for being both technically and dramatically terrible.
    Rush has a great story with good acting. The racing is not really portrayed as much as I’d like, only in service to the story and with plenty of cinematic “wow” to keep the drooling masses engaged. I saw it at a packed house on the second weekend, so at least in some markets it’s doing just fine. I expect it will do quite well on video among people that like eye candy and the folks that hear about it again come Oscar time.

  4. zotje says:

    There is more to the world than just the USA. This movie was primarily aimed at European and Japanese audiences (the big F1 markets). Worldwide this movie currently has a gross of 50mil on a 38mil budget. Given that it’s only been out for 3 weeks, and that there possibly even is an awards season to increase its gross, this is well on its way to break even.

  5. Doc says:

    “Perhaps if there were more personal scenes, and fewer races, the picture might have clicked with a much wider audience.” There was what, 10 total minutes of race footage? How could it still be a movie about racing if there was any less? Or are you counting human drama trackside as “racing?”

    The one thing racing movies really need to succeed (and which this movie, I feel, did the best job of so far — even if not good enough) is to really communicate what it is like behind the wheel of a racing car. It is a high-wire act without a net, next to someone else doing a high-wire act who is trying to push you off the wire. It’s a rush (no pun intended) like nothing less than riding a Saturn V off the launchpad.

    To communicate that, a movie needs MORE racing, not less. And it needs to be less dumbed-down. In real life, race cars are closest to the edge when they look the smoothest. The problem, I think, is that what makes driving a racing car so exhilarating is the feeling. It’s not a visual thing. It’s so easy for the less knowledgeable to get caught up in the visual spectacle, but that’s only a small part of it. The true thrill is in that moment where you know you’re at the absolute limit. You can feel it in your entire body. One millimeter too far, and you’re done. I guess that only people very familiar with racing have any idea what I’m talking about, but I think that’s the flaw with this type of movie. Director after director keeps trying to communicate the speed of racing visually, when it’s visceral; and the drama between people, when the drama is between the steering wheel and the seat.

  6. Joe Meyers says:

    Jim: Thanks for the correction. Just fixed it in the text.

  7. Jim Crider says:

    You might want to correct this: Niki Lauda is Austrian, not German. Always has been, still is, and always will be. He’s still heavily involved with the sport, though the non-racing press seems to think he’s an “Elderly Fan” when pictured with David Beckham in the team-and-invited-guest-only garage area of a Formula 1 race.

  8. Edosantx says:

    People have shorter attention span nowadays.
    Look at what it turned majority of the sports.., turned it into
    Arena type viewing. If they can’t see the other side of the track they won’t understand it. Also most people like shallow plot , more gasoline fueled explosions and very corny lines. If it comes to actual technicality
    Like mechanics or engineering you’ll lose a lot of people. If comes to
    Computer or cgi or sci fi yes you’ll get em. Racing movies are for a select
    Discerning audience , if they haven’t seen one of these movies
    Like 1968 Grand Prix or 1971 LeMans or even Paul Newmans the Winning or Senna then it would be a hard sell. Most of society
    Is conditioned towards instant gratification or information on their finger tips- ie cell phones and tablets… It’s a fantastic movie