rating: 3.5Ron Howard has never been known as a formalist, classicist, or even that much of an auteur, but he built his reputation by making solid "meat and potatoes" films in the mid-80's through the mid-90's. With films such as Splash, Cocoon, Backdraft, Apollo 13, and Ransom, Howard established himself as a go to guy in delivering compelling action-oriented dramas that could interest broad audiences. It wasn't really until Howard's Best Picture-winning film A Beautiful Mind that the newest Ron Howard joint began to gather awards season buzz. With Rush, the Oscar-hopeful whispers have already started, but the film is actually a throw back to classic Ron Howard, the Ron Howard who was appreciated by audiences, if not beloved by critics. Now lest you think that's a slight, it isn't. In all honesty, while I did quite enjoy A Beautiful Mind (even today, when its detractors have seem to won the argument), I actually prefer the workman-like Howard to the kudos-grubbing Howard who managed to snag away a Best Picture nomination in 2008 with the milquetoast Frost/Nixon over much more deserving candidates (cough*Dark Knight*cough). In Rush, Howard takes on the story of a true-life F1 Racing rivalry between Austrian racer Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and British speedster James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). As required by the nature and dangers of the sport, both men are arrogant, hubristic, and determined, but with so many similarities, it's actually their differences that are most fascinating and serve as the focus of the film. Hunt is an egotistical play boy, a confident and risky racer who loves racing for its dangers and the thrills these perils provide. His interest in the sport, as in his life, is essentially hedonistic, living life to the fullest in every moment. Lada on the other hand comes at the sport from the exact opposite point of view. Lauda, as may be the stereotype for success-driven Austian/Germans, is cold and calculating. He lacks empathy to the point that he builds virtually zero friendly relationships on the F1 circuit and openly admits at one point that he races because he feels it is the easiest way for him to make money. He is a tactician, not a romanticist, but he is extremely successful regardless of his straightforwardness. Rush starts out with both men paying their dues in the minor league F3 racing circuit. After Hunt takes a questionable aggressive move that causes Lauda to spin out and delivers victory for Hunt, a rivalry is born. When both men, driven by a competitive fire, buy their way into the big league F1 circuit, an out-and-out, unabated racing duel begins between the two, culminating in an epic season in 1976. The film has a blistering pace, adroitly mirroring the alluring tempo that attracts people to the death-defying sport. The film's script, written by Peter Morgan, doesn't bog itself down in overly long psychoanalytical scenes that try to "essential-ize" its protagonists, but rather illustrates the core of the two men in dialogue that makes sense and is natural to the situation. Maybe even more impressively though, the script doesn't gloss over or sugar coat either character to make them more palatable for the audience, as both men are shown as prickly pears putting it nicely, or self-obsessed jackasses putting it not so nicely. Of course, in a film about a bitter rivalry between two characters, a lot rides on the performances from the leads, and both Bruhl and Hemsworth are superb. While Hemsworth has been surprisingly adept at adding a layer of humanity and humor in his portrayal of the Norse God/superhero Thor in the Marvel comics movies, for whatever reason I had kind of brushed him off as a serious actor, but he proves he's got real acting chops in Rush. Meanwhile, Bruhl, most famous for playing the German sniper/movie star in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, has the extremely difficult job of making us sympathize with the uber-rational, uber-efficient Niki Lauda without toning done the man's abrasiveness, and Bruhl perfectly walks this tight high-wire act. While some are predicting Rush to be a major player at the 2014 Academy Awards, frankly I don't see it. The film, while managing to avoid the worst clichés and tempering the racing scenes down to their bear minimum of necessity for advancing the narrative, is too akin to an action movie to garner the attention of self-serious award bodies. If this does turn out to be the case though, Howard and everyone else involved in the film shouldn't hang their heads, because even if the film isn't good enough to deserve awards attention (and it isn't), it's the type of solid, story-centered action film went MIA sometime back in the 1990's and it's damn fine to see it back again.