The difference between an auto race and a movie about auto racing, like director Ron Howard’s “Rush,” is that in a real race the outcome is in doubt.
There’s not a lot of uncertainty in this biographical drama, even if you aren’t familiar with Formula 1 stars James Hunt and Niki Lauda, whose celebrated rivalry in the 1970s forms the heart of Peter Morgan’s script.
Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) was a hard-living and ridiculously handsome Brit for whom racing was a jolly sport, and a noble and exciting risk. For the Austrian Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl), racing is a matter of calculated risk, and applying his engineer’s brain at minimizing that risk.
This story is perfect fodder for Morgan, who has made a career of two-character conflicts set in late 20th-century history, including “Frost/Nixon” (which Howard directed) and “The Queen.” Hunt and Lauda are natural opposites — with Hunt’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude a sharp contrast to the short, taciturn Lauda.
Morgan’s script focuses primarily on the 1976 Formula 1 season, when Hunt and Lauda battled neck-and-neck in the point standings as they raced at sites around the world. The story leaves room for personal drama for each man: Hunt’s tempestuous marriage to supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) and Lauda’s romance of a socialite, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). But the major drama comes during the German Grand Prix and a horrific crash on a rain-slicked track that nearly killed Lauda.
Hemsworth, using his “Thor” blond locks to good effect, neatly captures Hunt’s reckless charm. But the real star is Brühl, who gets Lauda’s clipped hostility and perfectionist attitude down perfectly.
Howard employs cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”) to capture the raw speed and rapid turns of Grand Prix racing, which is more kinetic and seemingly death-defying than the hours of left turns of a NASCAR race. Howard also revels in Morgan’s depiction of the racers’ swinging ’70s lives — with more topless women than one expects from the artist formerly known as Opie.
Alas, in the movie’s racing sequences — particularly in the finale — there’s a feature that’s all too expected in a Ron Howard movie: the use of TV announcers as plot exposition, something Howard also overdid in “Apollo 13.” That oppressive wall of sound detracts from the thrill of “Rush,” but the movie still has adrenaline to burn.
Formula 1 racers duel on the track, and in the pits, in this energetic biographical drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use.
Running time • 123 minutes.