Back in 2013, Universal Pictures and Ron Howard boldly produced a sports drama about Formula 1 racing in the early 1970s. It wasn’t exactly the sort of subject that tends to have mass appeal among American audiences, but the hope was that with Thor himself (Chris Hemsworth) anchoring the film, it could have both commercial success and critical appeal. So what happened?
On the critical side of things, Rush can be described as nothing but a triumph. The reaction from movie reviewers was overwhelmingly positive, and Yahoo, in a write-up for its movies section, ranked it as the sixth best film ever from Ron Howard – undoubtedly one of the most prolific and accomplished directors working. Praised for outstanding racing action, a well-crafted setting, and wonderful performances from Hemsworth and co-lead Daniel Bruhl, Rush looked initially like a surprise hit with all the ingredients of an Academy Awards dark horse. Frankly, from a critical standpoint, many would agree that it was among the best films of 2013.
But in just about every other respect outside of pure quality, Rush wound up falling short. For starters, it was a significant letdown at the box office, which ultimately goes a long way in determining how a film is viewed, particularly in the U.S. A movie that isn’t generating enough income just can’t be kept in theaters as long, and is often labeled as a “flop.” Things didn’t quite get that far with Rush, but Box Office Mojo, which posts earnings numbers for films, reveals that this project only made about $27 million in the U.S., despite a $38 million production budget. Those are inescapably bad numbers, and though the foreign gross of $63 million helped the film to recoup its budget and then some (likely thanks to Formula 1’s significantly greater popularity overseas), the domestic numbers made for louder headlines. Rush found a way to look flop-ish despite earning $90 million total.
Likely as a result of the domestic numbers, Rush didn’t seem to have much of a shelf life past its first few weeks in theaters. It didn’t stay in the public discussion very long and, despite being one of the easier films in recent history for a video game adaptation, didn’t even spawn a mobile game. Given the sheer number of racing games out there, a licensed experience based on Rush could have actually helped to publicize the film a little bit. Yet, the closest thing to such a game was one of several themed bingo gaming rooms at Gala Bingo’s casino platform. There, “Rush” is the name of the game with graphics depicting winding roads and starter lights calling F1 to mind as one enjoys an unusually action-packed bingo experience. But whether it’s based on the film or not is unclear. This is a shame given that so many sports and action films these days actually do spark mobile or online gaming adaptations, usually to their own benefit.
And if poor domestic box office numbers and a lack of expansion to other media weren’t enough to relegate Rush to (relative) obscurity, the film was also completely snubbed at the Academy Awards. Granted, it was a loaded year, with projects like The Wolf Of Wall Street, 12 Years A Slave, and Gravity dominating the awards season. But Rush didn’t even receive mention among the 2014 Oscars nominations (though it was nominated for Best Picture in the drama category at the Golden Globes). Again, this likely had a lot Ito do with the ultimate lack of appeal Formula 1 racing has to American audiences, but given Howard’s clout and the critical praise the film received it was still surprising to see it so thoroughly neglected by the Academy.
It’s now been three years and counting since this film’s release, and when you look back at the decade so far in film it’s hard to find a project that’s more underappreciated. It was a simple story of the real life rivalry between James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Bruhl), but portrayed the emotions and motivations that go into high-level sports as well as any film ever has. With Hemsworth playing the supremely talented wild child and Bruhl the maniacally disciplined professional, Rush showed us the highs and lows of elite competition, the different paths to elite sporting status, and all the complexities of a professional rivalry. And it did so without overtly preaching a single message, drowning itself in historical detail, or becoming dull.
This was a tremendous film, and one that’s worth a re-watch whether or not you care for Formula 1 racing or box office clout.