Rush 

Drive, they said.

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Rush is first and foremost a tale of two very different men and how they run their lives. That James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) are Formula 1 race car drivers and fierce rivals gives director Ron Howard's high-speed character study a license to pull out all the stops in the thrills-on-wheels department — and he does. The racing action is, ahem, fast and furious, with a minimum of obvious CGI impossibilities.

But screenwriter Peter (The Damned United, Frost/Nixon) Morgan's dramatization of the real-life Hunt and Lauda's exploits on European and American road-race courses in the 1970s isn't content to merely drop a few dialogue scenes in between the automotive sequences. We get a nifty, character-filled portrait of the times, a close look at sportsmen in a slightly more candid, less completely commercialized era of competition.

Englishman Hunt, a lion-maned, ostentatiously raffish pretty boy who obviously enjoys racing for the hell of it, always looks as if he's on his way to a party — which he usually is. Surrounded by a clique of admirers — including his aristocratic backer, Alexander Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay) — impetuous Hunt can't resist a flute of champagne and a few tokes of reefer before climbing into the cockpit. Women find him completely irresistible. And the actual Hunt — who died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 45 — is a pretty good facsimile of Australian heartthrob Hemsworth (The Avengers, Thor). They're both matinee idols built for swashbuckling. Professionally, Hunt's challenge is to find a racing team to match his derring-do, preferably someone like international model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), his jet-setting new wife. And then to win lots of large silver cups.

For Niki Lauda, rebellious son of a conservative family of Austrian bankers, those rock-star antics are a waste of precious energy. Lauda's engineering talent is superb. As played by Spanish-German character actor Brühl (Inglourious Basterds, The Bourne Ultimatum), he's a detail-oriented control freak, but it's hard for people to warm up to him and he knows it. Niki meets his future wife, Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara), on the road in Italy. He has just abruptly exited a party, and she's the fed-up ex-girlfriend of a movie star. He bums a ride with her, her car breaks down, and when the two Italian guys who stop to help them recognize Niki as the new driver for Ferrari, he impresses everyone with his road-handling skills.

Otherwise, as in the run-up to the fateful German Grand Prix at Nürburgring in 1976, Lauda is not afraid to back away from danger if he feels overmatched. That's something that would never occur to Hunt. Next to him, Lauda is a bit of a square — a fact the British driver likes to point out whenever they meet. Lauda's ethos typifies his insecurity: "Happiness is the enemy. It puts doubt in your mind."

The two men's battle for the 1976 F1 championship forms the background for most of the movie, from Watkins Glen to Brazil to Monza to the Japanese GP in the shadow of Mount Fuji, in the pouring rain. It's a pleasure to see Howard, who burst on the filmmaking scene as leading man and director of Grand Theft Auto for Roger Corman's New World Pictures in 1977, returning to the world of burning rubber and smoking brakes. The race scenes are exciting and realistic — although, to be frank, nowhere near as hair-raising as the TV footage of Ayrton Senna in the documentary Senna — and Howard is not above having some Corman-style fun with his cutting, as when we jump from a sex scene to a close-up of pumping pistons.

Movie fans who don't know a shunt from a chicane can nevertheless dig into the personal dynamics of Hunt and Lauda's rivalry. Hemsworth's Hunt is the consummate playboy jock. Brühl's performance evokes dark depths of suffering and perseverance. The personalities swirling around them are sharp and flavorful, and the pageantry is always grounded in metal and motor oil. Someday, when we're all riding bicycles and shuttles, the contests of these two helmeted showoffs will seem as quaint as medieval jousting matches. When that happens, we can look at Rush to remind us of the men who once roared past us at 180 mph. It's a winner.

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