'Rush' rises to top of racing movies

Ron Howard's newest film, "Rush," is set to open nationwide on Sept. 27. It is based on the 1976 Formula One season and the title battle between Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda. Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

As director Ron Howard's newest film, "Rush," comes to theaters nationwide Friday, you have to wonder if a general audience will embrace a show about auto racing, much less racing in the seemingly ancient mid-1970s.

Will racing enthusiasts go see a movie that gets the story of the 1976 Formula One title battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda right enough, even if it's not documentary-accurate?

The answer to both of those questions should be yes.

This is sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. With race cars!

But that's really selling things short -- and much too simply.

"Rush" soars in all the right places, makes you think in others and stands among Howard's best work -- no small feat for the director of "Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind," "Frost/Nixon" and "Backdraft."

The movie unfolds quickly, the thrilling racing sequences to open and then sprinkled throughout, the depiction of the hard-working and sometimes even harder-partying lifestyles that racers, mechanics and their hangers-on enjoyed in the 1970s as the sport transitioned to an ever-more upscale endeavor.

But the film centers on the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda in the 1976 season and then the payoff, where you realize that while the movie was about two racing legends, the heart of it is not the heartthrob Hunt -- played to perfection by Chris Hemsworth -- it is Lauda, the portrayal of whom should earn Daniel Brühl an Oscar nomination, if not an outright win.

Watching the two-hour, three-minute film is like going to a race itself. There is the thrill at the start as we meet the protagonists, it settles into an unfolding, fast-paced storyline and finally there's the payoff at the finish. And if you blink, you may miss something important.

And what it also should show fans of Formula One too young to have seen it is the transition years of the sport from daredevil death-wish status to a polished, regulated, much safer form of racing. Maybe you will think that's good. Many may believe it is bad. "Rush" lets you choose.

It's made clear early in the movie how often drivers were dying on the track, and for his part, Lauda was one who aimed to see that stop. Hunt, on the other hand, would down some champagne, maybe take a hit and then get behind the wheel. The technician, tactician and calculated risk-taker versus the dashing, win-or-die-trying free spirit. It's been the essence of racing for generations. It's put on screen with near perfection here.

Hemsworth/Hunt sums up the wildcat side best when replying to a question about why racing isn't made safer.

"The risk of death turns people on."

I'm not sure Hunt ever said those words, but Hemsworth sells it like Hunt did.

Credit goes to writer Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon," "The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland") for latching onto a great story without being a slave to all its details.

While racing purists may quibble with parts -- Hunt and Lauda were friends off the track, some races were compressed, the race schedule is altered, some accidents are fictitious and even deaths were composites of those that occurred over multiple seasons -- the job of Morgan and Howard was to put out a coherent film people will want to watch while capturing the essence of its based-on-a-true-story tag and the times it purports to reflect.

From an entertainment standpoint, they nailed it. It has the look and feel of the '70s throughout. You know … sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It earns its R rating honestly.

It's practically worth going to the movie just to see the fashions. It's apparent now my then-10-year-old self was a much more frumpy Lauda than fab Hunt.

From a racing purist's standpoint, it should certainly be close enough. And if the story isn't close enough, the racing sequences alone should suffice.

Brühl and Hemsworth not only portray the men who drove the cars, they seem to drive each other to fine performances.

They had to portray a rivalry that nearly saw one of the drivers die, the other deal with the guilt of being complicit in what led to that near-fatal accident, and still stay true to the spirit of the times.

And if you're worried the actor who plays "Thor" is just not right for the role of Hunt, rest easy.

Hemsworth certainly looks the part, though he is a little too handsome compared to Hunt's rough-hewn facial features. But it's the Australian actor's ability to show the outward boyish charm and the devil-may-care attitude in Hunt -- as well as the inner doubt that wracks him -- that makes the performance memorable.

For Brühl, he was fortunate enough to get to spend time with the three-time world champion Lauda -- Hunt died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 45, so Hemsworth didn't have that luxury -- and the contact with the racing legend did not go to waste. Brühl is Niki Lauda in this movie.

Their barbs and banter never seem forced, even when Hemsworth as Hunt throws barbs like "rat," at Brühl/Lauda, and sometimes much worse.

Brühl/Lauda takes it all with a sly grin before making a usually salient point. Again, you get to decide who you like in this movie. There are not two heroes on screen, just two men driven to be the best at what they do.

Making a serious film about racing comes with enormous pitfalls.

You can be true to life but so over the top that you have a memorable movie -- and now even a cult classic -- but an at-times-laughable flick (see "Days of Thunder"). You can have a plot so bad you're not sure how the movie ever got green-lighted and with racing scenes so inauthentic that anyone who knows anything about racing will laugh (see "Driven").

Or you can see "Rush."

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll with race cars? No. It's more than that.

It is a fabulous work of cinema.

And it is the best racing film ever made.