Drama. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Br hl, Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara. Directed by Ron Howard. (R. 122 minutes.)
In racing films, it's easy for the actors to get upstaged by the cars. There's a junkyard of movies -- "Driven," "Days of Thunder," "Le Mans" -- that faltered because filmmakers used their shiny, fast-moving automobiles as an excuse to ignore the story.
"Rush" brings as much raw horsepower as anything else in the genre. But its success comes from a careful balance by director Ron Howard and especially screenwriter Peter Morgan. The ego trips and sexuality and driving are all filmed with equal intensity, to the point where the emotions and flesh and crunched metal seem to blend together. The movie's only major problem is that the tension sometimes overwhelms.
It's a myth that there are no good racing movies. The exceptional documentary "Senna" about legendary Formula One race car driver Ayrton Senna came out just three years ago. (And "Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby" from 2006 counts too, right?)
Even so, Howard and Morgan set a high degree of difficulty when they chose to chronicle the complex F1 rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda of Austria and James Hunt of Britain. "Rush" offers a brief background for each, focusing on the surprising similarities between the playboy Hunt and savant-like Lauda, who are both fearless drivers estranged from their families. Their hatred of each other comes down to approach: Hunt needs to blow off steam in the form of sex and boozing; Lauda has an analytical mind that can't be distracted.
The bulk of the action focuses on the events of the 1976 Formula One season, a year filled with drama, tragedy and an ending that was made for cinema.
Chris Hemsworth's James Hunt is on the movie poster, but the movie hinges on Daniel Br hl's nuanced performance as Lauda. The actor could have easily settled into a straight villain role, if he didn't offer regular clues to the humanity inside -- many in the scenes with his lover, Marlene, portrayed with a believable dedication by Alexandra Maria Lara.
Morgan writes choice crowd-pleasing scenes for both drivers, whether it's Lauda's awkward marriage proposal or Hunt's sexual conquests. But the more subtle moments carry the film. During the few meaningful connections between Lauda and Hunt, Morgan's script runs screaming from sports movie cliches. The trailers for "Rush" betray the reality that this is a drama with some racing in it, not a racing movie with some drama.
Taking liberties with timelines and making composite characters is standard for this kind of movie. But Howard revs the drama too deep into the red line, particularly in the end. Subtle narration by Hemsworth and Br hl gives way to over-the-top racing commentary ("In Formula One, it's known as the graveyard!" ... "In these conditions, it must be close to impossible to drive a 450 horsepower car!") -- exposition that isn't necessary given the strength of the rest of the script. A journalist's rude question during a Lauda news conference is distractingly over the top and belongs in a lesser film.
As a positive, Howard proves that directing action is one of his underrated strengths. The racing scenes are dynamic and easy to follow, with a sheen that brings the 1970s into sharp relief. And credit to whoever is responsible for the soundtrack, which includes a Thin Lizzy song and the superior British version of "Gimme Some Lovin' " by Steve Winwood.
For those whistling "The Andy Griffith Show" theme song before entering the theater, know that this film more than earns its R rating. Mangled human remains in the crash scenes and multiple bare breasts and backsides are featured.
Frances Bavier would definitely blush, but she'd still be proud of another strong directing effort from her youngest co-star.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
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