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By Claudia Puig
USA TODAY

Adrenaline junkies have a range of life-threatening sports to choose from, and Formula One racing surely is near the top of the list.

The story of real-life rival race-car drivers,Rush(* * * * out of four; rated R; opens Friday in select cities) brilliantly captures the exhilaration that comes from facing death head-on. It's also an ode to joyous rivalry.

Though based on a true story, this is no by-the-book biopic. Nor is it a clichéd sports movie about the triumph of the human spirit.Rushis a thrilling action film and a moving tale of an adversarial friendship, a kind of anti-bromance that is as captivating as any love story.

Director Ron Howard deftly maneuvers his camera and his storytelling to showcase the supercharged competition between the misanthropic Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and hedonistic British playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth).

For Hunt, whose driving suit had a decal proclaiming "Sex, The Breakfast of Champions," pleasure was as important as winning. When he wasn't racing, he was cavorting with groupies (he has supposedly bedded more than 5,000 women).

Lauda was his polar opposite. Rigid and introverted, he had no use for socializing, and his abrasive manner was off-putting to many.

Though they had complicated personalities, the pair developed a grudging respect, even as they taunted each other. Their relationship plays out against the riveting 1976 season during the run-up to the world championship.

This is Howard's best film, with a perfectly calibrated screenplay by Peter Morgan, author ofThe Queenand a master of character studies. (Howard and Morgan also teamed on 2008'sFrost/Nixon). Factor in the finely tuned performances by Brühl (he should be remembered come Oscar time) and Hemsworth, and the result is a winning formula.

Hemsworth's blond good looks are ideally suited to the role. He nails Hunt's insouciant charisma. But the brash Hunt takes an instant dislike to the caustic Lauda.

And the distaste is mutual: Lauda regards Hunt as an undisciplined womanizer. Hunt marries model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), and the marriage quickly dissolves. Lauda marries Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), who staunchly stands by him, resigned to playing second fiddle to Lauda's passion for racing.

But the romantic partners are relegated to supporting status here. This is a story of two men who clash and push each other to do their best.

Howard unflinchingly depicts a devastating turn of events that transformed Lauda's life. We come to regard Lauda in a more endearing light and admire his tenacity. At the same time we see the decency beneath Hunt's swagger. Still, Howard doesn't shy away from depicting their respective flaws.

Rush's racing scenes, where accidents and death loom, are the most enthralling action sequences of any movie this year. The considerable talents of the storytellers and the two astonishing lead performances make it a tale with wide appeal.

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