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Rating: ★★★★☆

It’s certain that Ron Howard is one of the more frustratingly inconsistent directors working today; every riveting masterpiece (Frost/Nixon) is usually followed by one or two duds (Angels & Demons, The Dilemma) before he returns on stonking form, just as he has with Rush, an exhilarating, white-knuckle thrill-ride that decisively earns the commendation of “sweaty palm movie of the year.”

Rush is based on the riveting rivalry between two Formula 1 racers – care-free, hedonistic British playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the more studious, serious Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) – from their humble beginnings in Formula 3, right up to the shocking accident at the 1976 German Grand Prix that nearly claimed Lauda’s life, and then beyond.

Through the duality of Hunt and Lauda’s characters, Ron Howard’s racing movie proves to be, much like Asif Kapadia’s sublime documentary Senna, an irresistibly compelling human drama about the forces driving two very different men to step into carbon fiber death machines again and again, despite how closely they stare their own mortality in the face.

For Hunt, the sex-mad drug fiend, the rush of the movie’s title is in knocking so loudly on death’s door, but miraculously emerging unscathed; for Lauda, it is the satisfaction of a perfectly-navigated race, by his own admission viewing happiness – marriage, celebrating his victories – as nothing more than a distraction, even a weakness.

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It might be fair to say that Rush grinds on a familiar axis when examining the pair’s personal lives ahead of the second half’s more tense drama, yet Howard shoots it through with such breeziness and at the same time such conviction, that it’s hard to hold much against the film because of it. Hemsworth – predicted to be the film’s weak link by most – reveals a staggeringly impressive take on Hunt, both in terms of accent and mannerism mimicry, while Olivia Wilde, playing his wife Suzy, boasts a staggeringly on-the-money British accent.

However, if Hunt has been marketed as the protagonist, then many will be shocked to realise that, by film’s end, this is really Lauda’s story, suffering as he does through tremendous set-backs, yet displaying a tenacious spirit and heft of heart. If he doesn’t triumph in the most traditional means, it’s something of a personal victory for Lauda, as evidenced by the film’s touching final scenes, which in lesser hands would easily play as trite and saccharine.

Credit it is to the tremendously talented Brühl – known for German roles in Goodbye, Lenin! and The Edukators, as well bit-parts in American films such as Inglourious Basterds and The Bourne Ultimatum – who eschews vanity in wearing the less-flattering “rat-face” dentures of Lauda, and in conveying that courage under fire (literally) so well, is the film’s best shot at scoring acting awards this season.

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In addition to all this humanity, Howard directs what is easily one of his most vibrant and exciting pictures to date thanks to a number of heart-pounding race sequences, employing CGI only when necessary for tricky coverage, and making the best of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s mind-bogglingly intrusive lensing, which disappears into wheel threads as screwed are punched in, and conveys to viewers (in some small way) the seductive allure of the racetrack.

In addition to this, Hans Zimmer’s score – one of his best in recent years, and that’s really saying something – bolsters Howard’s shock and awe, combining with some astonishing, awards-caliber sound design, to make every zoom, spin and crash feel weighty and crucial. Much like Kapadia’s aforementioned documentary, you really don’t need to be a fan of F1 to find your knuckles tightly clenched throughout.

Rush doesn’t speed outside the box of conformity, but with material this innately compelling, it absolutely doesn’t have to. If the personal drama veers close to generic on occasion, it is typically in the service of the wider picture being painted by Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan, who renders a thematically similar picture of fierce competitiveness and mutual, often begrudging respect.

That this is accompanied by astonishing technical design and dedicated performances, then, is just the icing on the cake. This is slick, to-the-point Hollywood cinema done right, sure to thrill audiences regardless of their interest in the sport.

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Rush is in UK cinemas September 13th, and US cinemas September 20th.

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This article was first posted on September 5, 2013