I've never been interested in car racing, NASCAR or otherwise, and the good news is, you absolutely don't have to be to love Rush, the story of the epic rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, during the 1976 season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl give terrific performances as the lead characters, and director Ron Howard shows he can make a movie that's completely different from anything else he's ever done.
Howard has always been a competent if un-flashy director who's made some good movies but lacked a kind of personal touch on the material. Now with Rush, working from a smart script by Peter Morgan (who wrote The Queen and Frost/Nixon), and more importantly, with Slumdog Millionaire cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, he fashions a thrilling, intensely visceral cinematic experience that's undoubtedly the best movie about car racing ever made (not that the competition's hugely fierce- but let's just say it blows Days of Thunder out of the water). Formula One racing is a sport that's incredibly popular in Europe, but all but ignored here in the U.S. (Americans prefer NASCAR), which may explain why the film didn't do well at the box office in the fall, but it's unfortunate, because the story is universal and exciting, even if you don't know a thing about Fomula One.
In the 1970's, James Hunt and Niki Lauda were the two best drivers in all of the sport, and the 1976 season is best remembered for the rivalry between them and the heated competition for the world championship. It was a perfect story to play up in the press, given that the two men had polar opposite personalities and for lack of a better word, really did hate each other. Chris Hemsworth shows off more range than he normally gets to in the Thor movies as Hunt, the hard-partying playboy who lacks discipline and focus, but makes up for it in raw talent and aggressiveness behind the wheel, while Daniel Bruhl is fantastic as the simmering, complicated Lauda, an antisocial jerk who buys his way into races but is a mechanical genius and a technical master at what makes the cars work best on the track. Both guys are good here, but Bruhl in particular commands your attention every time he's onscreen and has the advantage of getting the more complex character to play.
The script is fast-paced and smart enough to take the rivalry seriously between the two men, with Morgan throwing in enough intelligent dialogue about the nature of these drivers to make his points, while whipping back and forth from one insanely exciting race to another as the season progresses. The camera puts a soft focus on the atmosphere of 1970's Europe and projects a perfect sense of time and place, while the racing scenes are filmed with a kind of pulsating energy to make us feel as though we're right there in the car with them. I have a feeling the effectiveness of these scenes is mostly owed to Mantle, although it'd be unfair to cheat Ron Howard out of the credit, but this is so different from his past work that you wonder where the sudden energy and vivid realism came from. Whatever the collaboration, the movie is a tremendously entertaining, visceral piece of work, and one of the most exciting times at the movies all year.