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On Movies: 'Rush' scores points but doesn't quite excel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2013 - There's an exhilarating, shocking, painfully human movie about international Formula One auto racing out there. It played here in 2011, and it was called "Senna." The documentary tells the story of Brazilian champion driver Ayrton Senna and focuses on his memorable and dangerous duels with French champion Alan Prost in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

One thing that makes "Senna" so gripping is that the racing scenes are taken from actual footage that includes amazing two-car chases around sinuous Formula One courses and a few spectacular wrecks. The film also includes very revealing off-the-track footage of rebel Senna and establishment icon Prost.

"Rush," director Ron Howard's new feature film about Formula One racing in the 1970s, is based on a real duel -- almost to the death -- between two champion-caliber drivers. The film is generally entertaining, but most of the racing footage was restaged and, on the whole, just doesn't match up to the real thing. As for the human element, "Rush" tends toward the pleasantly melodramatic, with the mood of scenes needlessly reinforced by the blaring symphonic music of Hans Zimmer.

I found the real characters in "Senna" to be more interesting and contrary than the fictionalized real characters -- drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) -- in "Rush." Perhaps I was expecting too much. "Rush" is certainly worth seeing, particularly the second half, which focuses on the last three races of the 1976 season and features some powerful scenes of one of the featured drivers recovering from a horrific crash.

But the first half or so, as Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen") try to tell a rather complicated backstory, is disjointed, and the race recreations rely to a great extent upon fast cuts and close-ups rather than long takes of cars actually competing against one another. I have to admit, the practical problems of recreating races from the 1970s, using some vintage cars and some replicas, must have been immense. Particularly since much of the work was done on the actual tracks in Europe, the Americas and Asia where the races were run,

At the center of the story are two protagonists, both champion drivers. They are opposites, each considerably flawed. Brit James Hunt is an almost blindingly handsome, popular playboy who drinks too much, cavorts with more women than he can count and drives with reckless abandon. Austrian Niki Lauda, who admits that he looks a bit like a rat, is an martinet who is a master at mechanical adjustments that will make his car go a little faster, and who calculates the odds of every move he makes. He doesn't try to be pleasant to the men he is racing against, and is not well liked.

Hemsworth plays Hunt with a casual grace that seems inborn, and Bruhl takes the rat image, reinforced by his visible overbite, just far enough to be believable. To the credit of the filmmakers, neither driver comes across as pure hero or pure villain, and both do things that the audience is sure not to like.

To some extent, Howard makes up for some of the repetitiveness of the first half of the movie by giving us some spectacular scenes in the last races, particularly the final one in Tokyo in blinding rain. And the ending is satisfactory, positive without being overly sentimental. All in all, "Rush" is a pretty good movie. I just wanted more.

Opens Friday June 27

Harper Barnes is the Beacon's movie reviewer.