Media mogul Ted Turner once said, "Sport is like a war without the killing," and thus is the subject of Ron Howard's latest "Rush," about the James Hunt-Niki Lauda rivalry that dominated Formula 1 Racing in the mid 1970s. Hunt and Lauda don't kill one another, but come awfully close. Two out of 25 Formula 1 drivers die each year, Lauda points out early in the film.
Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a dashing, charismatic English man, with long blond locks, perfect blue eyes and often bare feet. Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is a shrewd, disciplined Austrian, who isn't here to play and doesn't mince words. The two have more in common than either would like to admit. Both came from straight-laced families and have had to fight their way from into the Formula 1 big leagues. Hunt, ever the show boater, is a natural in the driver's seat, with an aggressive streak that makes him unpredictable on the track. This does more than just ruffle Lauda, who is proudly risk-averse and has a near psychic perception of what makes a car fast. Their dueling personalities make for a great sport narrative (the kind Ted Turner would certainly like to see on his television screen) and a powerful source of motivation for the two drivers.
"Rush" starts in 1970, when the two first meet – and immediately dislike one another – in the amateur races. The film throttles through the next six years as Hunt and Lauda scrap their way to racing's top tier, their mutual disdain swelling along the way, and "Rush" throws most of its weight behind their 1976 world championship showdown.
Howard baths the world of 1970s Formula 1 racing in sepia and employs all sorts of tricks to stylize his ample racing sequences. This is Formula 1's heyday, with the world famous drivers jet-setting across Europe often followed by packs of beautiful women (which "Rush" features in various stages of disrobe). A lothario and an epicurean, Hunt flourishes in this environment, while workhorse Lauda would rather be back in the garage, fixing up his vehicle.
But even with all the glitz and glamour, the lethal risks of the sport are never too far away, as the characters look up from the track-side oysters and champagne to see one of their own carried off the track on a stretcher or worse. Soon enough, the danger catches up to Hunt and Lauda, altering the stakes of their rivalry entirely.
The characters of Hunt and Lauda aren't the entire film – just about 90 percent of it. Along the way, Hunt meets a girl – a stately supermodel (Olivia Wilde) – who he hopes can tame him for the better. Ultimately, a play toy, she pales in comparison to his car. Meanwhile, Lauda's love interest, a no-nonsense beauty (Alexandra Maria Lara), has a far greater influence on their rivalry. "Rush" could have used more Wilde to challenge Hemsworth, but Lara does her best as third wheel to the two drivers' constant dueling.
The characters of "Rush" often joke how frivolous their chosen profession is, and as fun as it is, "Rush" at first appears to be just as frivolous. But Howard dives into the kind of psyche that would allow his subjects to put their lives on the line, 50 laps at a time. Whether it's Hunt's habit of vomiting before every race or Lauda telling his wife on their honeymoon that "happiness is the enemy," the pair go to their respective extremes in pursuit of one another.
What separates "Rush" from a dramatized, big-budget, ESPN special of the week is Howard's and screenwriter Peter Morgan's ability to create fully fleshed out characters underneath their caricature-like appearances. "A--hole" is the term of endearment Lauda and Hunt often use for one another – and both are definitely that. But both are also quite likeable, each in his own particular way. Your allegiance to Hunt or Lauda switches back and forth faster than the race cars take the track turns, and that may be the most exhilarating part the ride.