It's 1976, a year when all the groovy girls are traipsing around in tiny suede skirts and all the cool guys have Badfinger hair. One of those guys was English racing driver James Hunt, the charismatic rapscallion who won that year's Formula One World Championship — the embroidered badge on his driving suit read "Sex, the Breakfast of Champions." His nemesis, Austrian-born Niki Lauda, was something else again, a straight arrow with square hair and equally rigid rules about how, exactly, one ought to put the pedal to the metal.
Lauda had won the championship in 1975 and had every reason to think he could do so again. What happened when he faced Hunt during the 1976 season surprised, horrified, and ultimately amazed everyone who followed the sport. That championship year is the subject of Rush, which pulls off a mini-miracle itself: It's both a perceptive dual character study and, that rarity of rarities, a large-scale action movie for grownups, one worth leaving the house for.
It's also the last thing you might expect from Ron Howard, a director who's made some terrific films (Splash, Frost/Nixon), but whose earnestness and dutiful, workmanlike approach have also produced prestige snoozers like Apollo 13. Then again, this is the guy who made his directing debut with Grand Theft Auto, for schlock impresario Roger Corman, and Rush seems to have shaken something awake in him. If the storytelling sometimes feels a bit scrambled — Howard tries to pack a lot, maybe too much, into 123 surprisingly fleet minutes — the racing sequences make up for it. Rush is flawed but alive, and its actors never get lost in the blur of speed. If the movie is partly about machines — a flimsy type of race car that Hunt calls "just a little coffin, really" — it's just as much about men who know precisely what to do in those split seconds when there's no time to blink, let alone think.
Chris Hemsworth, of Thor fame, plays Hunt, and you can see why the driver is a national treasure even in a country that's almost embarrassed to have national treasures. Hunt is England's version of California, blond, insouciant, and randy. He loves the ladies almost as much as he loves driving — early in Rush, he stands before a gaggle of goggle-eyed nurses and introduces himself, 007-style, as "Hunt. James Hunt." But the person who really gets under his skin is Lauda, played by Daniel Brühl. The two meet, very uncute. They walk away from their first and every subsequent encounter muttering "asshole."
But Lauda and Hunt are always there for each other, sometimes more so than for the women in their lives. (Olivia Wilde plays Hunt's wife, the model Suzy Miller, who left him for Richard Burton after his indifference toward her became unbearable; the stunning Romanian-born actress Alexandra Maria Lara plays Lauda's loyal partner, Marlene, though the womenfolk are pretty much relegated to the backseat here.) Lauda and Hunt growl and spar, but they also urge one another on, understanding each other better than anyone else ever could. At one point, Hunt explains in voiceover, "The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel," a sentiment brought home to Lauda the hard way. In case you don't know the story, I won't divulge the details here, but Howard, working from a script by Peter Morgan, dramatizes the event that changed Lauda's life in a way that's horrifying and direct; he hits a pitch of fiery, claustrophobic intensity that's hard to shake.
Hemsworth's Hunt is rakish and undeniably adorable. He's the one you want to look at, but Brühl is the one you want to watch. His Lauda is at first deeply unlikable and uncharismatic, a glowering gnat. But he knows himself and his limitations intimately, in a way that Hunt doesn't, and Brühl plays that confidence as an alternative kind of sex appeal. Lauda is a hard-ass and a grind, assertive to the point of cockiness, but you root for him. In a line of work where time means everything, he doesn't have a minute to spare for idiots.
Hunt died of a heart attack at age 45; Lauda is alive today. Rush is a fuel-injected valentine to them both, a love letter written with cursive sweeps of movement and grand whooshes of sound. The racing sequences, as shot by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and edited by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill, are fleet, exhilarating, stunning in their detail: At one point, the flagman at the finish line leaps into the air, bringing his flag down with a flourish before being blown back by the force of the car passing him. The moment is over in a flash, a treasure barely captured. I have an ailing 17-year-old cat who creeps toward the TV, fascinated, whenever any of the Transporter movies or a random NASCAR race pops up on the screen during his humans' channel surfing. His love of fast cars surpasses that of any man I know. I hope he can make it until Rush comes out on DVD. But anyone who can get to the theater on two legs, or four wheels, should see it on the big screen.