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On the right track



I've always considered Ron Howard a talented director, but never one who gets me excited when I see his name attached to a movie. I think it's because, while he is responsible for a lot of good movies (some, like "Apollo 13," I'd even call great), he's also responsible for cinematic travesties like "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Now Howard reteams with his "Frost/Nixon" screenwriter Peter Morgan for the thrilling and stylish "Rush," the story of the real-life 1970's rivalry between British Formula One racer James Hunt and Austrian driver Niki Lauda, and delivers one of his best films.

The film begins with the two men meeting early on in their careers while in the Formula Three racing division, and they take an instant dislike to one another. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, "Thor") is a preening, charismatic rock star of a driver who's prone to taking risks on the track while boozing and womanizing his way through life off the track. Lauda (Daniel Brühl, "Inglourious Basterds"), on the other hand, is self-disciplined, determined, and decidedly prickly (he's described as an asshole by several characters throughout the course of the film). Despite his dangerous occupation, he avoids unnecessary risk at all costs. Both men are incredible drivers, and soon secure themselves high-profile sponsorships, Lauda with Ferrari and Hunt with British car manufacturer McLaren. They rise through the ranks, and it's not long before they're the top-seeded competitors in Formula One racing, ultimately leading up to the 1976 Japan Grand Prix where they compete against one another for the world championship title.

Though I'm sure the film has exaggerated their differences for dramatic effect, Hunt and Lauda's frequently antagonistic relationship ultimately pushing them both into greatness makes for a fantastically entertaining story. The actors playing the two men fully inhabit their roles, each turning in exceptional performances. If he hasn't already, Chris Hemsworth proves he's a movie star with this role. His magnetic screen presence comes in handy for Hunt's larger-than-life personality, but he also finds the character's hidden vulnerability. He's also, as the archival footage at the end of the film proves, a dead ringer for the real James Hunt. Brühl has the more challenging role in the film, making us care about a character who is at times distinctly unlikable. The handsome actor is fitted with a prosthetic overbite to echo Lauda's somewhat rat-like appearance, and despite these obstacles, he manages to win us over. Both actors' work is crucial to the film, which spends just as much time with the men off the track as it does on.

Lauda's relationship with his wife, played by Alexandra Maria Lara, is handled quite well. Though she does inevitably end up worriedly looking on from the sidelines (though she never asks her husband to give up racing), their scenes together offer a unique depiction of the marriage that feels true to the script's depiction of Lauda: all business and serious-minded nearly to a fault. They clearly love one another, but it's not a warm-and-fuzzy sort of love. Olivia Wilde plays Hunt's wife, but unfortunately for the actress, her role doesn't really add much of anything to the plot.

Going into the film, I knew less than nothing about Formula One racing, so I admired the way Morgan's script gives just enough information for the audience to understand and follow what's happening without resorting to having a character actually sit down and provide an expository infodump about the rules of the sport. The film doesn't spend a second on anything that's unnecessary to the plot, so the pace never lags. There's a confidence to Howard's direction of "Rush" that feels unlike any of his previous work. He often has an impulse toward schmaltzy sentimentality, but outside of an occasional clunky moment, he manages to sidestep that tendency almost entirely. The film's racing sequences are thrillingly staged and exhilarating to watch — when crashes occur, you truly feel them.

The entire film looks fantastic. Anthony Dod Mantle's stunning cinematography is equally as invaluable to the success of the film as either of its stars. Aping the visual style of 70's film stock, with its overly saturated, high contrast, grainy look, the film appears as though it could have been filmed in the era it's set. Mantle's work, along with the Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill's editing of the film, deserve to be remembered come Oscar time. I also appreciated that the film doesn't overdo it on the period trappings, especially the soundtrack, which isn't just a jukebox of 70's rock nostalgia.

A welcome change of pace for its director, "Rush" is a heart-pounding action film fused with a satisfying human drama that delivers on the sensation promised in its title.