MOVIE REVIEW

‘Rush’ to the theaters | 3½ stars

Updated: 2013-09-26T18:47:02Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

Most movies about auto racing concentrate on the external speed of the race without ever capturing the internal drive of the racers. Not so with “Rush,” Ron Howard’s true-life tale of the toxic rivalry between two Formula One legends of the 1970s.

These men and their intertwining tales are so compelling that even viewers completely unfamiliar with the sport will get caught up in this slick and stirring drama.

Chris Hemsworth (aka the Mighty Thor) portrays James Hunt, an English racer with no shortage of talent or swagger. This risk lover won’t let party-boy indulgences prevent his rise in the Grand Prix circuit.

Hunt’s greatest opposition comes from his personality antithesis: Niki Lauda (the remarkable Daniel Brühl from “Inglourious Basterds”) is a methodical, antisocial Austrian who’s the first to admit he “looks like a rat.”

Their battles become notorious during the 1976 season, when the men compete on various continents to tally points to be world champion. This sets up what a track announcer dubs “the racing grudge match of the decade” on a rain-soaked track in Japan.

Howard and his “Frost/Nixon” screenwriter, Peter Morgan, do a masterful job of manipulating viewers into thinking they are watching a hero-versus-villain tale. But this relationship is far more complicated. As their one-upmanship, gambles and dirty tricks escalate, so does their obsessiveness. For much of the movie, they are rather unpleasant figures.

Yet when Lauda suffers what appears to be an insurmountable setback, everything shifts. The audience realizes what’s truly at stake, leading to agonizing scenes for both the driver and his loyal wife (Alexandra Maria Lara). Despite the racers’ faults, their laudable motivations unfold with startling clarity.

Lauda admits the sport attracts a different strain of athlete: “rebels, lunatics, dreamers. People who are desperate to make a mark and are willing to die trying.”

“Rush” also draws considerable power from its setting. The ’70s remains one of the trickiest decades to cinematically reproduce. There’s a certain indefinable look to the period — the word “unglamorous” springs to mind. It marks the last gasp before video tape and digital images replaced the evocative quality of film stock. Modern films typically emulate the fashions rather than the feel of the era and often play no better than a high school production of “Godspell.”

“Rush” is among the best yet at simulating the Me Decade. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (an Oscar winner for “Slumdog Millionaire”) re-creates it through a mixture of desaturated film stock, gradations of light and near documentary-quality images that mingle with actual footage. He also finds every way imaginable to shoot racing sequences that express the illusion of speed, veracity and danger. (He’s aided considerably by Howard’s go-to editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill.)

Not everything rides as smoothly in “Rush.” A long and clunky summary encounter spells out the themes in large block letters for those who weren’t paying attention. Likewise, the beautiful women in these men’s lives are introduced promisingly but are later relegated to cutaway reaction shots. (Their casting is simply uncanny, though — both Lara and the charming Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s supermodel wife look nearly identical to their real-life counterparts.)

It’s also maddening “Rush” is saddled with a generic title. The film contends that obsessive antagonism between Hunt and Lauda shaped their careers, not the fleeting rush of exhilaration found when speeding down the road.

Too bad the title “Driven” was already taken.

This fall, Brühl rules

Chris “Thor” Hemsworth may be the box office draw for “Rush.” But the name you’ll keep hearing about is his rising co-star, the Spanish-born, German-bred Daniel Brühl. Who?

You may remember Brühl as the German sniper-turned-film-star in 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Now there’s talk of a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of dour Austrian racer Niki Lauda in “Rush.”

Brühl is also getting some notice for his role in the WikiLeaks drama “The Fifth Estate” (due here Oct. 18). He plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a Berliner who turned on his idol, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Coming soon after: “A Most Wanted Man,” a spy thriller based on a John le Carre novel. Brühl stars with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright.

| Sharon Hoffmann, shoffmann@kcstar.com

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