MOVIES

Character-driven Drama

Wildly different approaches to winning fuel 'Rush,' more about the men than the cars

Chris Hemsworth (left), still buff after playing Thor, promised director Ron Howard he'd drop 30 pounds to play charismatic Englishman James Hunt, whose rivalry with disciplined driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) takes center stage in "Rush." "Thor couldn't even fit into a Formula One car," Hemsworth said.
Universal Pictures
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Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl

Directed by: Ron Howard

Stars: 3 1/2 out of 4

Rating: R

Even if you despise racecar driving, "Rush" is utterly captivating from start to finish. The story of archrivals on the Formula One racing scene in 1976, director Ron Howard's latest film is a fascinating character study of two polar opposites in a dangerous sport who have only one thing in common: winning.

Their approaches to that end couldn't be more different. Based on a true story, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is reckless and self-centered, a man who loves the high life off the track as much as he loves the adrenaline rush on it. Accordingly, his relationships with both his track managers and the women in his life, including his marriage to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), are fleeting, because he's such a loose cannon. Conversely, archrival Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is grounded and super-serious; he comes from money, and uses it, along with his vast knowledge of the sport, as his greatest assets in building the fastest car possible. Whereas James celebrates after winning a big race, Niki goes to bed at his regular time, to get up early the next day, striving to be even better.

Howard, working from a script by Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), succeeds in making the film about the men rather than their sport. This means Formula One racing is not specifically showcased, and anything we learn about it comes from the experiences of James and Niki. The stark contrast between the journeys of James and Niki are chronicled, allowing the performances and character arcs to take center stage.

That's a smart move by Howard — not as many viewers will be drawn to a racing movie as they will to this compelling drama of two men striving for the same goal in drastically opposing ways.

The performances are fantastic. Hemsworth, who's Australian, is well-suited to portray a bon vivant playboy living on the edge. James lives like he drives: bold, brash, arrogant and a legitimate danger to others. Since most of us know Hemsworth as Thor in the Marvel movies, this role is a nice change of pace that allows him to show some range and still be believable.

The best performance, however, is from to Brühl, and it should earn him a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Niki is just as full of himself and arrogant as James, but in an altogether different way: He wins with cunning strategy and execution, with an intellectual approach that values his brains over James' brawn. Brühl, with his short delivery, quick wit and determination, is both abrasive and endearing, a complex character we can't get enough of.

In addition to the stellar performances, it's nice that a pseudo-friendship does not manifest during the rivalry. They hate each other, and it stays that way. Niki views James with contempt. James calls Niki a "rat." It's intriguing to watch the hatred fuel them; for each driver, it becomes just as much about not letting the other guy win as it does winning for himself. Drama that takes this perspective — and does it so well — is not often revealed in movies today, which makes "Rush" a must-see. 

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