Directed By: Ron Howard

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, and Natalie Dormer

It would be an understatement to say that I had low expectations for Rush.  Let's be real.  Did anyone really expect a serious awards contender out of a racing movie led by Thor?  I sure as hell did not.  I knew the film had Ron Howard in the director's chair.  I knew that there was a rich, intriguing story for Howard to tell based on the controversial 1976 Formula One racing season.  I knew that Howard had a decent cast at his disposal.  Still, I just didn't care.  I had my preconceived notions of Rush, and that was that.  Having now seen the film, I can happily say that I couldn't have been more wrong.  Rush is a surprisingly strong sports drama.

At a Formula Three race in 1970, a rivalry is born.  British racer James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) meets Austrian racer Niki Lauda (Daniel Brûhl) for the first time, and they tear the tracks up in a race eventually won by Hunt.  Lauda, who sees himself as a much better racer with a better car, buys his way into the Formula One circuit using a $2 million loan from a bank.  Hunt soon follows suit when his backer Alexander Hesketh (Christian McKay) decides to step up to the big leagues.  Along the way, Hunt marries fashion model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), and Lauda finds love with Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara).  Their feud continues to develop over the next several years.

In the 1975 F1 season, the rivalry that's brewed between Hunt and Lauda takes center stage.  These great drivers bounce around the tracks back and forth trading the lead time and time again.  The season ultimately ends with Lauda triumphing as world champion and Hunt retiring from the race in defeat with a broken down vehicle.  After the season, Hesketh goes broke and dumps Hunt.  Desperate to compete and prove that he can beat Lauda, Hunt joins the McLaren team.  As the 1976 season begins, Hunt and Lauda once again engage in an intense rivalry and drive one another to greatness as they navigate some of the most dangerous racetracks in the world in the most hazardous conditions.  Hunt's McLaren and Lauda's Ferrari lead the pack in arguably the most eventful F1 season ever.  Tragedy also looms as the season progresses.

When it comes to sports movies, Rush stands in good company.  I started the film disinterested and finished it at the edge of my seat.  Director Ron Howard has once again struck cinematic gold with an engrossing tale of one truly epic rivalry with two champions who will put their very lives on the line just for a win.  Howard gives us a film where the races are undeniably tense, the drama is built around a relentless passion for competition, and the risks of this career are clearly illuminated.  Rush is an intelligent sports drama that you’ll thoroughly enjoy.

Everything in the film hinges on the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda.  Howard spends most of his time developing and exploring what makes each of these great racers tick and how they each thrive on this bitter feud in different ways.  While sex is the breakfast of champions for a guy like James Hunt, this superstar is not a party animal when he's at the wheel of that McLaren.  When he's up against Lauda, nothing else matters, and he's willing to put everything on the line to beat his Austrian counterpart.  He's really an overly aggressive, self-destructive loose cannon out on the racetrack, and that's what makes him a champion.  He will do whatever it takes to win.  Chris Hemsworth brings Howard's vision of Hunt to the big screen in a pitch perfect performance.

As for Niki Lauda, Howard develops this character as a guy who assesses risks in the most precise way possible but doesn't care who he has to be to win.  Lauda is a guy who knows how much he's willing to put on the line when he gets out there on the racetracks.  He's willing to take at most a 20% chance that he will die out there doing what he loves, and he makes this abundantly clear.  He's obviously all about dominating the F1 circuit and beating Hunt.  He doesn't care if he's perceived as an asshole or a rat by others while doing so.  As Lauda, Daniel Brühl gives a really intense performance.  He gives us the serious guy who knows how to win races above all else.

Finally, we have the tragic accident that takes place in the 1976 F1 season and defines the real-life rivalry between Hunt and Lauda.  Howard recreates this tragedy in the most striking manner possible.  From the breakdown of the Ferrari to a champion being engulfed in flames, the crash itself is surreal and difficult to watch as Howard shows it all in truly vivid detail.  What's most impressive of all is the makeup work done to depict this great driver burnt to a crisp for doing what he loves and confronting his nemesis out on the tracks in the riskiest conditions.  Every burn, every bruise, and every bloody wound is brought to powerful clarity with the makeup work done on our injured champion.  Nothing else more poignantly demonstrates what these men are willing to do to beat each other.

Beyond the rivalry that fuels the film, Howard crafts a really effective racing movie with a very distinctive style.  Given that the movie takes place in the 70s, Howard immerses us in a world that looks and feels like the era.  With grainy, yellowish cinematography and a soundtrack fueled by classic tunes from the 70s, he gives us a period piece truly reminiscent of the era.  The other thing that's equally important in this sports drama is the racing itself, and this is where Howard shines.  The sound mixing done to build such tense, pulse-pounding races seems to be the key to it all.  Hearing these vehicles roar thunderously down the tracks as fans cheer and commentators give their two cents on everything that's happening is really what makes each race a nonstop thrill ride.  Thanks to the excellent work done behind the scenes, the races themselves are just outstanding.

I don't quite love Rush, but I have endless respect for it.  It's a movie that slowly reels you in and just keep getting better and better.  With smart, effective directing from Howard and solid work from his cast and crew, this film takes us for one great ride.  Rush gets a strong 0.03% rating.  Have a wine cooler or two with this surprisingly good movie.