Everything you need to know about James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is on display in Rush's opening moments. He saunters into a hospital, barefoot, wearing his racing uniform unzipped to the waist. At this point in the film we don't quite know if he's just finished driving a fast car around a track or if he lives in this dirty white jumpsuit like some kind of fulltime Batman-esque obsessive. He's bleeding from a couple locations, the result of an unfortunate incident with the angry husband of a woman Hunt has recently "enjoyed." Every head turns and within a matter of moments he's having sex with one of the nurses. Almost supernaturally confident, he inspires both envy and lust and, just when you think this film will be a one-note love letter to the real-life racing legend's well-documented swagger, along comes Niki Lauta (Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds).
Lauda was Hunt's most aggressive rival in Formula One racing during the 1970s, when both men were considered masters of the sport. He was also Hunt's polar opposite. Methodical, meticulous and very nearly monastic, his discipline earned him Hunt's derision and mockery but also his respect. The film becomes the dance of attraction and repulsion between two competitors/admirers with fundamentally different approaches to their work. They were something of a co-sensation, their rivalry part of the big show, as arrogant as human beings can be but both seemingly knowing that their friction was part of what made them both magnetic, and the two actors work together with a cranky sort of anti-chemistry.
Appropriately, it's a supersized, loud film, the racing scenes all wet tracks and danger-cam, shot through with excitement and fear thanks to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. And this gigantic quality suits director Ron Howard, whose entrenchment in the mainstream event-film business has produced pleasures like Splash and Apollo 13 but also deep annoyances like The Da Vinci Code. Here he displays an enthusiasm and love for the subject that hasn't been part of his filmmaking style for a long, long time. This was the guy who starred in Eat My Dust and whose first movie as a director was Grand Theft Auto, after all; it's sort of a homecoming for him and a relief to be reminded that expectations attached to his name don't always have to include blandness.
Every so often Peter Morgan's (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) script decides that all that cinematic showing could use a little helping of telling, especially a couple of honking, useless conversations between Hemsworth and Bruhl where they reiterate every single thing that just transpired on screen, as though the audience needed a tutorial for an advance placement exam in all things Ron Howard. But in the scope of of this big entertaining vehicle, those are just sputters. The rest is perfectly fast and pleasurably furious.