The last time director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan worked together, it was on "Frost/Nixon," a crafty and illuminating cat-and-mouse psychological thriller that pitted interviewer David Frost against still-roaring lion in winter Richard Nixon.
With "Rush," the filmmakers are in harness again, and again their fascination lies with two strong-willed men of diametrically opposed temperaments. Ostensibly about the rivalry between Formula One race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), which reached its zenith in the explosively dramatic 1976 season, "Rush" is also an old-fashioned morality tale, an iteration of the Ant and the Grasshopper with fast cars, spectacular smash-ups, fierce competition and the kind of cutthroat, grudgingly respectful one-upsmanship of which so many classic male-bonding myths are made.
Beginning in 1976, when Hunt and Lauda played their own cat-and-mouse game through a series of Grand Prix races, "Rush" flashes back six years, when Hunt – a handsome blond playboy – first meets Lauda, a serious-minded Austrian with an unfortunate overbite and zero sense of humor. Both sons of prosperous bourgeois families, their similarities end there, with Hunt largely driving on instinct and adrenaline and Lauda taking a far more technical, analytical approach.
While Hunt lives it up, dining on oysters and Champagne at races and capitalizing on the "aphrodisiacal effects of being close to death," as he puts it at one point, Lauda keeps his head down, his humanity finally peeking through when he takes his future wife (and two awe-struck fans) on a breakneck joyride through the Italian countryside. Morgan's script can be faulted for telling rather than showing too often, as the men deliver a few too many pat speeches in which they spell out What Our Rivalry Means. But Howard directs "Rush" with speed and jangly, jarring verve, bringing the races themselves to white-knuckled life and allowing the men's stories to play out with only slightly predictable reversals, upsets and, inevitably, those hard lessons learned.
That viewers care at all about men who are joyless, bossy and arrogant on one hand and vain, shallow and arrogant on the other can be directly attributed to Bruhl and Hemsworth, each of whom imbues his character with enough personal charm to keep the audience invested as their cars keep going round and round.