First things first: Ron Howard’s “Rush” has nothing to do with the Canadian prog-rock trio.
It might have an easier time at the box office if it did.
The Oscar hopeful focuses on the bitter feud between England’s James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria’s Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) on the 1970s Formula One circuit.
I know what you’re thinking: “1970s? Formula One? Howard might as well have focused on the rift between Pakistani cricketers Javed Miandad and Imran Khan.”
Thankfully, “Rush” is so engrossing, you can be completely swept away even if you don’t know your Formula One from your Formula 409.
“Rush” is the story of both men, and both actors share the narration. But whether it’s because of Hemsworth’s star power or the fact that his is the flashier role, things tilt decidedly in Hunt’s favor for quite some time.
A wildly popular playboy, Hunt comes across like James Bond in a racing suit. When he walks into a hospital with a fresh crowbar wound acquired from a jealous husband, Hunt beds the first nurse he sees.
He eventually adds a patch to that racing suit that reads “Sex — Breakfast of Champions.”
Thanks to a memorable breakthrough performance from Bruhl (“Inglourious Basterds,” the upcoming “The Fifth Estate”), Lauda slowly overtakes the hunky Hunt to become the heart and soul of “Rush.”
Lauda knows full well that he isn’t liked, primarily because, unlike Hunt, he’s serious and he works hard. He even embraces his nickname, “The Rat.”
Rather than earning his spot in the F1 ranks, he buys his way in through an owner with financial troubles. Then he gives his car more horsepower and a lighter frame in ways his mechanics never dreamed. When Ferrari signs him, he immediately labels his new car designed by the legendary automaker “a piece of crap.”
Hunt eventually marries model Suzy Miller (an underused Olivia Wilde), but when Lauda meets his future wife (Alexandra Maria Lara), she tells him he can’t possibly be an F1 driver, because F1 drivers are sexy.
As Howard has said, “Rush” takes place in a time when the sex was safe and the driving was dangerous. Looking back, the sport and its drivers seem to have been teetering on the verge of insanity.
Hunt prepares for his first race against Lauda with a swig of Champagne and a hit off a joint. The cars are described as both coffins and bombs on wheels. And Lauda accepts a 20 percent chance that he’ll die whenever he gets in his car. That seems about right given that, during the seven years “Rush” spans, nine F1 drivers were killed and numerous others, including Lauda, were horribly injured.
Even though it’s not a spoiler — Lauda’s wreck is featured in the trailers, and there’s this thing called Wikipedia — I won’t go into the specifics here, except to say that, if it hadn’t really happened, you’d never believe it. And the aftermath would be even more inspiring if Lauda weren’t so insufferable.
It’s safe to say that Howard, reteaming here with “Frost/Nixon” screenwriter Peter Morgan, has learned a thing or 297 about directing since his previous fast-car adventure, 1977’s racing-to-Vegas comedy “Grand Theft Auto.”
The thrilling race footage drops viewers right in the middle of the action in a way reminiscent of those documentaries that once were IMAX’s bread and butter. At times you can almost feel the breeze.
Howard and Morgan dole out enough information to help newcomers follow the action as Hunt and Lauda, fueled by equal parts machismo and petrol, throw caution and their lives to the wind in a succession of exotic locales: Monaco. Sao Paulo. Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that “Rush” is going to be a tough sell in the U.S.
A similar movie focusing on, say, the rivalry between Richard Petty and Davey Allison or the one pitting Dale Earnhardt against practically anyone would have, at least in some sections of the country, generated lines around the block.
But there’s something about discovering a new story — and, for some, a new sport — that generates more excitement.
Or, you could say, a bigger rush.
Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.