Fast cars have a well established place in Hollywood. There is a certain thrill of watching a car speed across on the big screen that cannot be substituted; it probably emanates from the the fact that one can easily put oneself behind those wheels and imagine the wind blowing across the face as cars, houses, trees and everything else just whoosh by. It is an adrenaline rush unmatched. Fast cars have been loved for years, and have been much in the limelight in the recent times with the overwhelming success of the Fast & Furious franchise. While this movie series thrives on the presence of sleek and fast cars, most action thrillers do include a scene with a speeding car at some point or the other. So whether it is in a Bond movie or one from the Bourne series, each one is truly enjoyed.
While fast cars are not that difficult to find in films, movies on professional car racing have somehow been few and far between. Movies in this genre do go a long way back with even the 1930s seeing the likes of When The Crowd Roars and Indianapolis Speedway. But if we were to stick closer to the current era, one would really have to scratch his head to remember the memorable professional car racing movies. While movies on other sports like baseball and American football do keep emerging, tales in the field of racing have been limited in Hollywood. And if we narrow them down to films that were based on true stories, well, we’ll really be struggling to have a discussion.
So which of the movies of this category since the turn of the century have been impressive? The list is very small; in fact, it may only hold a singular entry. But, oh boy, what a movie that one is! An unexpected source hands out one of the best car movies of the past decade… Pixar’s Cars. This 2006 animated film was a roaring success for Pixar, and rightly so. The movie narrates the story of a rookie racing car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who is in the race for claiming the (fictionalized) Piston Cup. But before he manages to reach the final racing venue, he ends up in a run-down town where the haughty McQueen is about to learn a thing or two about love, humility and friendship. Cars opens and ends with two dramatic races, and even though the heart of the movie really lies outside the racetracks, these two races up the tempo of the movie with their nail-biting finish, the different racing styles of each racer in sync with their personalities, the heart-warming touches towards the end, and eventually the completion of McQueen’s transformation as is made evident through the differences in the manner that both races end. Cars is a movie that with its more colourful backdrop gave a very enjoyable and memorable racing finale, and of course, a very endearing movie. Something of that class in this genre of movies is yet to be created again, as even its sequel Cars 2 of 2011 was a dismal attempt at bringing back the magic of the original.
Not many professional car racing movies in the current times have even come close to the quality of Cars. 2001’s Driven had the Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin and superstar Sylvester Stallone onboard and yet it bombed. The film was about a retired racer (Stallone) who was called back to mentor a young talented driver, who’s losing his nerve on the race circuit in the CART Champ Car series. The movie had its quota of cool-looking track scenes, especially a car crash scene which was particularly well-shot. But Driven probably exemplifies well the fact that a sports movie’s real theme remains outside the field or track; the characters, their inner struggles, the rivalries, these are the themes that get shaped up before the characters step inside the “sports arena”, and a well-laid out story before leads to more excitement once the games begin. That is what was true about Cars, and not about Driven. A similar thing holds true for 2008’s Speed Racer, starring Emile Hirsch and Matthew Fox. It is the story of a young driver who wants to top the racing circuits and follow the footsteps of his elder brother who was also a racer. While the racing scenes themselves (and there were a lot of them!) hold your attention, despite the over-the-top stunts and colourful race tracks, the movie did not do too well due to a rather clumsily tied-up story and weak direction by the Wachowski siblings. The thrill factor inside the circuit was not matched once the movie moved outside it.
It is surprisingly a non-serious movie that has done better than most in this genre. The 2006 comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby starring Will Ferrell narrates the story of a NASCAR driver who has to rediscover his passion for racing to edge out the growing dominance of a rival. While I have not seen this movie, it does hold decent enough reviews and box-office collections, though being a comedy film with Will Ferrell in it, the movie is bound to have been more about the gags than the cars. The same positive response was not served to another NASCAR car racing flick, Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005) with Lindsay Lohan playing the lead and Michael Keaton as her father. The movie was an average comedy flick, and that is just putting it mildly. But an impressive foreign theatrical run and a low production budget to begin with, Herbie: Fully Loaded did turn out to be a commercial success and was a good platform for Lohan to build her acting career around (what she did with it is a different matter altogether!).
The emergence of a serious drama film giving the right vibes and thrills of professional racing is long overdue. Rush is set to satiate this desire in the coming weekend. Handled by Ron Howard, a master in bringing out the human angle in any story deftly, Rush narrates the rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the backdrop of the 1976 Formula One season. While the movie should be a must-watch for lovers of Formula One, it is a movie that many should seek for the elements of the race are just the backdrop. The movie is likely to be a story about deeper human emotions, the determination to succeed against all odds, the fuel ignited by a sense of rivalry, and the love for racing. And that it is based on true events, adds a bit more realism to proceedings. Not forgetting that it is a Ron Howard movie after all, the expectations are quite high. A movie very much needed, Rush may just be the dose that the doctor ordered!
Can also read: The Best of Ron Howard
PS: For those who wish to read more on movies on professional car racing from ages back, then I suggest reading this lovely article at Sandcastle V.I.