First, there's the sensation of speed -- propulsive, thunderous, metal-rending momentum. The perfectly-titled "Rush" is fast cars passing in a blur, extreme close-ups of valves, pistons, nerve-wracking gear-changes and rubber meeting the road. And it's about the men with the courage and lightning quick reflexes to master all that.
Ron Howard, re-teaming with his "Frost/Nixon" screenwriter, the Oscar darling Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), and thanks to sterling efforts from his regular editor, Daniel P. Hanley, and Danny Boyle's favorite cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Trance," "Slumdog Millionaire") has turned Formula 1 racing into moving, surround sound art.
Yes, it's a thoroughly entertaining and gutsy rendition of the sexiest era in F1 and its greatest rivalry -- the dour Austrian Niki Lauda vs. the swaggering Brit, James Hunt. But it's just gorgeous, heart-pounding, maybe the best-looking and certainly the best-edited Howard film since his masterpiece, "Apollo 13."
The casting is on-the-nose. Daniel Bruhl ("Inglorious Basterds") is the very picture of the intense, rodent-toothed "Sour Kraut" Austrian, Lauda -- a man who is arrogant, blunt and all "risk assessing" business, on and off the track. Chris "Thor" Hemsworth has the cocksure smirk of a party animal off the track, a hunter-killer on it, embodying James Hunt's ever-wandering eye for the main chance.
Their competition was fierce and unpleasant. And in every scene, the insults and edginess set off sparks.
"You're relentless," Hunt complains. "Thank you,"Lauda replies.
They get under each other's skin, never more than in that epic 1976 season during open-wheeled racing's deadliest era.
For Hunt and Lauda, there was no moment to savor the champagne in the winner's circle. No opportunity to get into the other's guy head could be passed up.
The players -- Hemsworth and especially Bruhl -- get across fear, respect and contempt, often in a single look or gesture, no mean feat.
The film briskly takes us through their pre-F1 rivalry, then onto the racecourses from Britain to Japan as they seek that fast ride that will give each a chance of beating the other. Lauda isn't much to look at, something Hunt never tires of telling him. That means no matter how much the rock star each becomes, Hunt always seems to have gotten to that lovely groupie first.
Olivia Wilde slings a mean Brit accent as Hunt's model-girlfriend, Suzy Miller, and Alexandra Maria Lara is the German beauty who melts Lauda's cold, cold heart.
But Howard & Co. have fun with the romances, as no moment of sexual congress (bombshell Natalie Dormer makes an appearance) is complete without symbolic cuts of pulsing, pounding engine parts in sync with the sex.
It's a playful movie with a pithy message -- "A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool does from his friends." If there's a fault to it, it might be that racing fans get little sense of the violently varied racecourses, the tracks -- Monaco, Spa, Nurburgring -- made famous by that earlier classic of the genre, "Grand Prix." And as much as the film makes the races cinematic, the filmmakers are hard-pressed to improve on the in-your-face grit and gravel of Fox TV's outstanding NASCAR coverage.
But "Rush" is a fine and fun film tribute to the milieu, the men, women and machines in a sport that was never deadlier or more glamorous than during its disco-decade incarnation.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Christian McKay, Natalie Dormer
Directed by Ron Howard, written by Peter Morgan. A Universal release.
Running time: 2:00
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use
Photo/Video credit: Universal Pictures