When the 17th century Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracián wrote “A wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends,” he might as well been summarizing the theme of Ron Howard’s Rush. This furiously entertaining movie, about the legendary rivalry between Grand Prix drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), makes the case that the stronger your competition in any given field, the better you will become.
Although the story of Hunt and Lauda is well-known around the world, they never became household names in the United States, where Formula One racing didn’t catch on the way it did everywhere else. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, who previously collaborated with Howard on Frost/Nixon, wisely mines the real-life events for suspense. And even if you know how it all ends, the film’s uncharacteristically loose and inventive direction makes getting there a thrill. Howard, who has too often stuck to a rigid, dull style ( A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code, Missing, Apollo 13), finally breaks free of his prestige-picture shackles. He invests the movie with the carnival-funhouse energy of Boogie Nights (split screens, pop songs, montages), and he shoots the racing sequences in a hyper-realistic manner that not only puts you in the seats of the drivers, but also inside their heads and even their engines, all pumping pistons and oil and gasoline.
Conveying a sense of what it feels like to drive at 170 miles per hour is critical to Rush, because it takes a certain kind of man to participate in this insanely dangerous sport. Hunt, who is British, and Lauda, who is Austrian, approach their craft from opposite directions: Hunt, a spirited bon vivant with the chiseled looks and body of a surfer, doesn’t really take much seriously whenever he’s not on the track. He also never met a woman he couldn’t seduce with just a look. Lauda, by comparison, is an arrogant, humorless man who takes pride in the fact no one likes him. He can tell everything about a car just by sitting in it, and he knows a lot about design and aerodynamics and the science of racing, too: He is the Spock to Hunt’s Captain Kirk.
Rush alternates between the men’s private lives (Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara play the women they end up marrying) and their increasing animosity on the track, where they constantly try to beat each other to the finish line by any means possible (including, occasionally, some dirty pool). The movie would have worked just as well if real life hadn’t provided the filmmakers a horrific, tragic turn that only intensifies the rivalry.
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Hemsworth and Brühl constantly battle for the viewer’s sympathies: You don’t always like these guys, but you come away with tremendous respect for both. Rush is the kind of Hollywood studio production that has sadly become all too rare — a smart, exciting, R-rated entertainment for grown-ups that quickens your pulse and puts on a great show without ever insulting your intelligence.