Set during the 70s and concerning the rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), one an undisciplined hedonistic Brit, the other a taciturn, aloof, but super-focussed and disciplined Austrian. Olivia Wilde plays Hunt’s model wife, whilst Alexandra Maria Lara plays Bruhl’s more down-to-earth spouse. Guess which pair experience major marital problems? Christian McKay turns up as an integral part of Hunt’s crew, somewhat of a pompous windbag.
I loathe car racing, and anyone who has read my reviews of his films knows I think of Chris Hemsworth as the ‘Human Blocked Nose’. He always acts like he’s all blocked up in the schnozz and about to sneeze at any given moment. I was set to not like this 2013 Ron Howard (“Parenthood”, “Ransom”, “Frost/Nixon”) racing film very much at all. And then something unexpected happened: I really enjoyed it. OK, so you probably figured that out before I finished typing that, but believe me, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s certainly a more substantial car racing film than “Days of Thunder”, and not just because it’s based on a true story. It’s probably Howard’s best film since 1989’s “Parenthood”. Although I find it bizarre that Hemsworth does a good British accent in this film when he does an “SNL” sketch-level one in the “Thor” films, I have to say he’s good here. Well-cast as douchebag Brit driver James Hunt, who is more interested in partying and celebrity status than maintaining a place at the top in his chosen profession, he’s not very likeable. Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda, however, doesn’t have a lot of likeable traits either, which you would think would make for dull viewing. I mean, Hunt is a jerk playboy, and Lauda is so humourless and aloof that he rubs his colleagues/opponents the wrong way. However, not only is Bruhl excellent as Lauda, but you never hate him. The difference between the two men is that Hunt is a jerk, but he’s a popular jerk, through his playboy charm. Lauda is unpopular amongst his peers and extremely aloof (he comes off like a prick to journos in the film), he’s an arrogant person yet a good person who is extremely dedicated to racing. Since the film is about racing, you find yourself liking or at least siding with Lauda much more than Hunt, who I was never quite sure if he was a good person or not. Given how dangerous the sport can be, I’d rather champion someone with a more serious mind-set than a drug and booze-hound party boy twat like Hunt. The contrasts and similarities between the men are interesting, as the film shows that being surly and by-the-book is just as likely to make you lonely in life as being an arrogant, philandering, reckless show pony will (Though it’s worth mentioning that even a non-racing fan like me has heard the name Niki Lauda, but I’d never heard of James Hunt before. I think there’s a reason for that, and the film pretty much points it out in a scene towards the end in an airplane hangar). I’m not sure how accurate any of this is to history, but I certainly found it all very convincing.
There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in this film, all the stuff about modifying the cars to make them faster, and the frankly insane notion of ‘acceptable risks’ these guys are willing to take, risking at least 20% chance of crashing and dying during a race. The film also looks excellent, with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”, “127 Hours”) forced to work with overcast conditions (sometimes even worse) for many of the racing scenes, yet still making everything look colourful, so it doesn’t look drab or unappealing. The racing footage looked very convincing to me, with some really interesting super close-ups inside and outside of the cars. There’s a helluva crash midway too. If there’s any flaw, I do wish that the lovely Alexandra Maria Lara (“Downfall”) were afforded more scenes as Lauda’s wife, but screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”, “Last King of Scotland”, “Frost/Nixon”, “Hereafter”) is far more interested in the two men here than in their women. Also, I found the overripe performance by Christian McKay as Hunt’s chief financial backer to be really irritating. He’s like a poor man’s Stephen Fry crossed with eccentric character actor Aubrey Morris (“A Clockwork Orange”, “The Wicker Man”). Full credit, though, to Olivia Wilde for doing an even more convincing Brit accent than Hemsworth for her role. How convincing is it? It took me five minutes to finally convince myself that it really was Wilde and not just some Brit lookalike. Wow.
It’s amazing to me that given the characters aren’t terribly ingratiating, given my bias against Chris Hemsworth and car racing, that I still ended up really interested in this film. I think it’s called good filmmaking. Best of all? There’s no childish hospital wheelchair racing to be seen.