If the elegant cars of Formula One racing are thoroughbreds, "Rush," the new film set in that world, is more of a mixed breed. When screenwriter Peter Morgan candidly calls this "a British independent film directed by a Hollywood director," he is underlining the movie's frustrations as well as its strengths.
That director would be Ron Howard, who brought his usual brand of crack professionalism to this re-creation of the real life, mid-1970s rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda of Austria and Britain's James Hunt as they both strove for the Formula One championship.
Howard has been especially on target with his choice of actors. Both Chris "Thor" Hemsworth as Hunt, and the versatile Daniel Bruhl, taking on Lauda after projects ranging from "Good Bye Lenin!" to "Inglourious Basterds," completely inhabit their characters.
The motor of this drama is not just that each of these men is obsessively driven to win the racing title. It's also that they view life so completely differently, they can't help but get on each other's nerves in a very major way.
Hunt had as much raw talent as any driver of his generation but, as Morgan's script has him admit, "I have a hot head and an inability to tolerate discipline." What he does tolerate remarkably well is lots and lots of sex, drugs and alcohol, not necessarily in that order.
Lauda, in contrast, is a superb technician, an obsessive who knows more about his cars than his mechanics do, and he begrudges every second he spends away from the track. Unlike the charismatic Hunt, he has zero gift for people and a tendency to insult folks without even knowing he's done so.
"Rush" begins on Aug. 1, 1976, the ominous rainy morning of the German Grand Prix, with Lauda saying in voiceover, "I am known for two things: one is my rivalry with James Hunt and the other is this race."
Before we find out what happens on that day and its disturbing aftermath, "Rush" flashes back to both men's start in racing, their relationship with women and the roots of their palpable distaste for each other.
Hemsworth is casually convincing as a man so physically attractive that an emergency room nurse is willing to endanger his health by taking him to bed when he needs medical attention. When Hunt does finally get married, to top model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde as a blond), it is completely on a whim.
Lauda, who calculates the risk in everything, has a less impulsive courtship of Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), though it does start with one of the film's most pleasing scenes, a hitchhiking episode that offers a reverse twist on the celebrated Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert moment in "It Happened One Night."
In a sane world, there would be nothing remotely risky about making a film about rivals who enjoy taunting each other: Hunt mocks Lauda as "a good little boy," and the Austrian returns the compliment, saying he wished his counterpart was "half as impressive inside as outside."
In today's franchise-driven marketplace, however, what's known in the business as mid-range pictures are getting increasingly difficult to finance, even ones written by a man twice nominated for a screenwriting Oscar ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon").
And though Universal Pictures has been home to Howard and producing partner Brian Grazer for decades (and the studio ended up with the distribution deal), the director had to seek production money elsewhere for this project. That "Rush" got made at all is a happy ending, but it's difficult to resist the sense that it could have been happier.
On the one hand, it is satisfying seeing Howard expertly handling a piece of adult mass entertainment. He's forged a team combining "Slumdog Millionaire" veterans like fluid cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and production designer Mark Digby with his own regular editors Dan Hanley and Mike Hill and veteran composer Hans Zimmer. Together, they make the lure and excitement of fast machines palpable on screen.
Howard has made some smart adult pictures, including "Frost/Nixon" and the perennially underappreciated western "The Missing," but that touch has eluded him here. It's hard to fight the feeling that his sensibility is in some fundamental way at odds with the story Morgan's script wants to tell.
For all his skill, Howard's on-screen instincts are inescapably square. It's not that he avoids the inevitable R-rated sex and drug scenes or even adult themes like the multiple dimensions, the bad and the good sides of rivalry. It's that his polished Hollywood style is not ideally suited to the edginess this story seems to cry out for.
Unlike the charismatic Formula One racer Ayrton Senna — the subject of Asif Kapadia's superb 2010 documentary "Senna" — both Hunt and Lauda are extremely arrogant, albeit in diametrically opposite ways. One has too much personality, the other has too little, and so the film has difficulty getting us to care about either one of them.
Despite its strengths, the telling of this counterintuitive tale about the mysterious ways cutthroat competition can enrich lives never manages to be completely convincing. Though one enjoys and appreciates "Rush" for what it is, it does not thrill the blood the way we have the right to expect a film like this to do.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: In limited release in New York and L.A.. Released wide Sept. 27.
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