The world of Formula 1 racing is driven by speed, volume and power. So it’s fitting that “Rush,” a movie about two competing Formula 1 drivers, is fast, loud and muscular.
This consistently pleasurable film tells the tale of two racing rivals, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), as they compete ruthlessly against each other throughout the 1970s. It’s a story of ambition, drive and clashing personalities: Hunt is a risk-seeking, hard-living playboy, Lauda a socially inept racing geek who takes a scientific approach to everything.
Much of the credit for the movie’s success goes to director Ron Howard, the former “Happy Days” actor who ended up directing films like “Parenthood,” “Apollo 13,” “Backdraft” and “Ransom.”
Mr. Howard has always been a competent director, churning out well-made middlebrow entertainments that lack any recognizable style. But with “Rush,” he’s working on a higher level. His usual vanilla competence has been transformed into a supreme directorial confidence as he fires up his two lead characters and the turbo-charged world they live in.
With its thundering race-car POVs, zooming close-ups and epically gorgeous rain-painted setpieces, “Rush” is by far Mr. Howard’s most stylish movie. There’s a gleeful kineticism to his camera work and editing; the movie moves with a propulsive, awesome speed. And it’s his deft, flawless direction, more than anything, that makes the movie such a delightful thrill to watch.
The script by Peter Morgan, who also wrote the Howard-directed “Frost/Nixon,” is insightful in some ways — particularly in terms of how it balances the central rivalry. Either of the two leads could have been a villain in some other movie: Hunt as the spoiled, handsome thrill-rider, Lauda as the ruthlessly calculating overlord. Instead, they are twin protagonists, with each as the mirror of the other.
But Mr. Morgan’s dialogue is often too on-the-nose, especially in a movie-capping conversation that bluntly recites all the themes that came before. And the movie zooms by virtually all of its supporting characters — including Hunt’s wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde) and Lauda’s spouse Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) — treating them as blurry figures standing on the sidelines while Hunt and Lauda race on.
The script’s treatment of Hunt and Lauda is more thorough, though not exactly complex. The nuances are left to the well-cast actors. Much of the work is accomplished simply through physical contrast. The hulking Mr. Hemsworth is best known for playing the Norse-deity superhero Thor, and he injects a similar sensibility into his portrayal of Hunt. With his perfect looks and flowing yellow mane, it’s easy to imagine him as a golden god of racing. Mr. Bruhl’s Lauda, on the other hand, is compact, crooked-toothed, squinty-eyed and mop-haired. At one point Hunt tells his rival that he looks like a rat. What Lauda doesn’t say, but could have, is that Hunt looks like a lion.
Mr. Howard’s direction highlights their personalities — Hunt’s genial wild boy approach, and Lauda’s anti-social systemization — as well as the ways their personalities connect them to their cars: Lauda’s vehicle is quick and consistent; Hunt’s is prone to flaming out, but capable of tremendous feats. In the end, the movie succeeds on the strength of both of their personalities. Despite occasional misfires, it’s steady, well-executed and, from time to time, unexpectedly powerful.
RATING: R for nudity, medical gore, language
RUNNING TIME:123 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS