‘Rush’: race car movies still box office poison

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