Rush: Film Review

The lead actors shine in an engaging look at the two fierce rivals who battled it out for the Formula One championship in 1976.

Ron Howard returns to his high-speed roots to explore the 1970s Formula One rivalry between Chris Hemsworth's James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl's Niki Lauda.

Ron Howard returns to the high-speed roots of his directorial debut, Grand Theft Auto (albeit with a budget probably a hundred times bigger), with Rush, an involving Formula One racing drama centered on the nasty mid-'70s rivalry between two drivers who couldn't have been more dissimilar. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl excel as, respectively, British wild man and hedonist James Hunt and Austrian by-the-books tactician Niki Lauda. Limited American interest in European Formula One means Universal won't be seeing anything resembling Fast & Furious business at the box office, but international returns could be very substantial.

Most modern-era car racing movies, from Grand Prix and Le Mans to Days of Thunder, have been far stronger at portraying the excitement on the track than at developing interesting downtime drama among the characters. But rather the reverse is true with Rush, which offers perfectly coherent racing coverage but devotes far more time to exploring the personalities of two drivers who represented behavioral polar extremes and drove each other to distraction.

PHOTOS: 25 of Fall's Most Anticipated Movies

It's a credit to Peter Morgan's screenplay that one can come to understand and sympathize with both of them, even though there are many reasons one might not easily warm to either one. Just as young ladies threw themselves at the great-looking Hunt literally by the thousands (one line describes his sexual prowess as "immortal"), female viewers might be persuaded to attend a racing film simply because of Chris Hemsworth, who looks fantastic with his long blond locks and ready smile and has finally found a role he can really score with in every sense of the word.

His looks and devil-may-care attitude aside (at one point he ventures that women like race car drivers because of "our closeness to death"), Hunt is the kind of figure who dares you to take him seriously; he stays up all night before races, never abstains from sex and is seen taking swigs of booze right before races. Purists and the more serious-minded are bound to disapprove of this guy, as they did in real life.

Offering a 180-degree contrast is Lauda, who comes from a conservative Viennese background but defies his family by taking up racing. He buys his way on to teams and is meticulous about engine specs and team discipline. An all-work-and-no-play guy, he cares nothing for ingratiating himself with his team members, and his abrupt marriage proposal to the pragmatic and supportive Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), formerly a girlfriend of film star Curt Jurgens, feels more like a business venture than a love match.

STORY: Ron Howard's 'Rush' to Get Exclusive Openings in New York and Los Angeles

Physically, Hunt taunts Lauda as "my ratty little friend," and with a pasty brown face and protruding teeth, the Austrian, awfully well played by Daniel Bruhl, really does resemble a rodent. He's a chilly character, for sure, brusque and reserved; as the guy behind the wheel, he's not asking for love from his Ferrari team, just maximum effort to put him in a position to win the F1 championship, which he does in 1975.

With his former team falling apart, Hunt, who has married high-maintenance blond beauty Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), is desperate to do "whatever it takes to beat that prick," ultimately hitching on with McLaren despite their wariness over his erratic reputation. Presenting atmospheric snippets of the 1976 season's early races in Sao Paulo, South Africa, Spain and Monaco, the film creates an impressionistic rather than dramatic picture of a racing season that sees Lauda jump ahead in points.

Morgan develops a dovetailing emotional dynamic between the drivers when, after rubbing it in with Hunt that his wife has left him for actor Richard Burton, Lauda finally marries Marlene, only to find that happiness seems to be a detriment to his driving. By contrast, Hunt's edgy turbulence in the wake of his very public embarrassment motivates him to drive faster.

The turning point comes at the Nurburgring track in Germany, aka The Graveyard, notorious as the most dangerous course on the F1 circuit. The rainy conditions compel Lauda to propose cancelling the race, but Hunt leads the move to vote it down. Sure enough, the meticulous Lauda then has a terrible accident; he's stuck in his burning car for more than a minute and suffers terrible burns to his head and lungs.

VIDEO: 'Rush' Trailer

The recovery, shown in more than sufficient detail, is terribly painful; his lungs must be vacuumed, and trying to put a helmet on is purest torture. Lauda both blames Hunt for the accident and credits him for motivating him to get back on the track an amazing 42 days later, but not before Hunt pummels a tasteless journalist who asks Lauda at a press conference if he thinks his wife will stay with him now that he looks so bad.

In Lauda's absence, Hunt has made up a lot of points, but the Austrian puts on an amazing display, so that the championship will be determined in the final race of the season, in Japan within view of Mount Fuji -- and in heavy rain.

In the wake of the season, the two men remain at odds -- they are far too different and too competitive to ever be friends -- but they do understand each other in a way that perhaps only fellow professionals can. We've never gotten particularly close to these very distinct personalities, but they're interesting and lively company for the two hours they're onscreen due to the sharply etched performances of the two leads.

That's more than you can say for anyone else in the film, as Morgan hasn't bothered to add more than one dimension to any of the other characters nor to provide especially memorable dialogue.

The racing footage is serviceable enough, although there are no attempts at the sorts of amazing shots or extended bravura driving sequences that previous filmmakers have sometimes pulled off.  Rather than brilliantly clear, Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography has something of the grubby visual quality of '70s films -- particularly of international co-productions of the time, which is sort of amusing.

It's startling to be reminded of how flimsy and delicate the cars of the time looked and of how common it was for drivers to be badly injured or killed. The very fine and successful 2010 documentary feature Senna underlined that fact and may actually have been an impetus for this film's creation.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival
Opens: Sept. 20 (limited); Sept. 27 (wide) (in U.S.) (Universal)
Production: Revolution, Working Title, Imagine Entertainment
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Alistair Petrie
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Peter Morgan
Producers: Andrew Eaton, Eric Fellner, Brian Oliver, Peter Morgan, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Executive producers: Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Tobin Armbrust, Tim Bevan, Tyler Thompson, Todd Hallowell
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer:  Mark Digby
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Dan Hanley, Mike Hill
Music: Hans Zimmer

Rated R, 123 minutes