Ron Howard revs up racing rivalry in ‘Rush’

WASHINGTON – When burnt rubber causes burnt flesh, only daring drivers slide their scorched scalps back into racing helmets, screaming from the pain.

Call them athletic masochists, but director Ron Howard gets the “Rush.”

The film follows the real-life rivalry of two 1970s Formula One racers, Britain’s James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria’s Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Their rivalry is to racing what Bird and Magic were to hoops: Lauda is by-the-book like Larry Bird, while Hunt is a hotshot playboy like Magic Johnson. Together, the two grow from mutual hatred to mutual respect — as Mario Andretti waits to overtake them like Jordan.

Years from now, we may look back on “Rush” as Hemsworth’s coming out party, preferring the touch of a steering wheel to the hammer of “Thor” or the dagger of a “Huntsman.” He outshines Tom Cruise in “Days of Thunder” (1990), but it’s a performance that’s easy to overlook because Bruhl (“Inglorious Basterds,” “Good Bye Lenin!”) is so damn good, managing to turn a robotic man into a charismatic one. In this way, the film is as much an actors duel as it is a rivalry biopic.

Viewers will exit the theater with competing loyalties between Team Hunt and Team Lauda. That’s because, unlike many sports films, “Rush” challenges us to choose sides. While Howard told us who to root for between underdog Jim Braddock and cocky champ Max Baer in “Cinderella Man” (2005), he has us secretly pulling for both guys here. If Hunt is the flashy hero, I dare you not to respect Lauda’s determination. And if Lauda is the disciplined hero, I dare you not to admire Hunt’s guts. As sure as “race car” is spelled the same backward and forward, the protagonist and antagonist are intentionally mirrored.

The credit for this belongs to screenwriter Peter Morgan, who’s twice been nominated for Oscars for “The Queen” (2006) and “Frost/Nixon” (2008), also directed by Howard. Morgan creates layered characters out of his two leads, showing Lauda’s risk calculation for each track and Hunt’s habit of vomiting out the butterflies before each race. All the while, the dialogue crackles with wit and reversals of expectations. One example: A hitchhiker scene where we expect the lady to triumph like “It Happened One Night” (1934), only for it to evolve into a case of Formula One fanboys.

At times, the “Formula One” story becomes formulaic. We could have done without the opening and closing voiceover narration, which is better woven throughout the entire film or lost entirely.

More importantly, the film’s female characters could have been better drawn. It’s natural for the floozies to lack texture as they sleep with the womanizing Hunt (he actually introduces himself as “Hunt, James Hunt”), but the racers’ primary love interests, Suzy (Olivia Wilde) and Marlene (Alexandria Maria Lara), deserve more than being spectators — and arm candy for Richard Burton.

Thankfully, Howard’s Oscar-winning eye overcomes any of these flaws by finding visually expressive ways to layer his scenes. In a scene where Hunt feels alone and trapped, Howard shoots through the bars of a bird cage, echoing Adrian’s “caged” feeling in the pet shop of “Rocky” (1976). In another scene, a burning flame reflects off a window next to Lauda. The foreshadowing is unmistakable.

At this point in his career, Howard has the luxury of surrounding himself with top-notch collaborators: Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle won an Oscar for “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), music composer Hans Zimmer won an Oscar for “The Lion King” (1994) and editor Daniel Hanley won an Oscar for Howard’s “Apollo 13″ (1995) – not to mention three more nominations under Howard for “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), “Cinderella Man” (2005) and “Frost/Nixon” (2008).

All four of these elements, directing, cinematography, music and editing, shift into high gear once “Rush” gets out onto the track. The fast and furious race sequences will enthrall even the most stubborn non-racing fan, thanks to close-ups of pistons firing, tires squealing and condensation rolling down helmet visors. These detail shots reveal Howard’s passion, having driven hot rods in “American Graffiti” (1973) and smashed them to bits in his directorial debut “Grand Theft Auto” (1977).

As Hunt says, “The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel.” The same goes for watching “Rush.” As you whip out of the multiplex parking lot with a revved engine and daredevil lane changes, be careful on the ride home, or your movie ticket might just become a speeding ticket.

★ ★ &#9733

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s 2013 Movie Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @AboveTheJFray, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.

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