Mozart vs. Salieri. Kennedy vs. Khrushchev. Gates vs. Jobs. Add to that list of epic clashes Formula 1 adversaries James Hunt and Niki Lauda, whose larger-than-life bout for the 1976 world championship title fuels Ron Howard's exhilarating "Rush" -- not just one of the great racing movies of all time, but a virtuoso feat of filmmaking in its own right, elevated by two of the year's most compelling performances. It's high-octane entertainment that demands to be seen on the bigscreen, assembled for grown-ups and executed in such a way as to enthrall even those who've never watched a race in their life.

With the film opening opposite "Prisoners" on Sept. 20, audience skepticism could give "Rush" a slow start in theaters, as folks question why they should care about such a subject -- or wonder what Howard, who has spent the past decade churning out respectable middle-brow entertainments, can bring to the material. But if Universal gives word of mouth a chance to build (screening the film at the Deauville and Toronto film festivals is a good start), they should have a huge worldwide phenomenon on their hands.

The hook couldn't be simpler: "Rush" pits two personalities from opposite ends of the spectrum against one another in a sport where the stakes are no less than life and death. An Austrian with an innate gift for racing but no sense when it comes to social interaction, Lauda (as played by "Good Bye Lenin's" Daniel Bruhl) is the pragmatist to Hunt's British playboy. Already plenty dashing in real life, bad-boy Hunt proves even more irresistible in the hands of "Thor" star Chris Hemsworth, who makes Hunt's driving look like the least reckless thing about him.

Whereas Hollywood screenwriters tend to give us clear-cut heroes and villains, real life deals in far more ambiguous rivalries, and Peter Morgan's script manages to deliver complicated personalities with elegance and efficiency, relying on these two fine actors to flesh them out onscreen. The two racers meet in the lower divisions, where Hunt sparks a deep animosity with Lauda by pulling a risky move that could have gotten them both killed. However irresistible the call of glory, "Rush" makes clear the potential cost of ego by depicting an accident early on: The car has smashed through a barrier and the driver is nowhere to be seen, replaced by an ugly smear running down the length of the hood.

"Twenty-five people start Formula 1, and each year, two die. What kind of person does a job like this?" asks Lauda at the outset. Those who know what happens to Lauda can appreciate the gravity of his question, which perfectly conveys the edge-of-your-seat incredulity with which sane, feet-on-the-ground types watch such races. Nothing could be worth putting oneself in such danger, even in ideal driving conditions, and yet, the visceral thrill is undeniable -- and the mere presence of a worthy adversary enough to push great racers to peak performance.

Modern audiences have been conditioned by the sheer volume of bad screenwriting they encounter day in, day out to be wary of scripts that articulate their own themes as eloquently as humanly possible. "Rush" is such a film, a rare thing where every utterance is "on the nose," and yet so perfectly calibrated, it would be a crime to force the characters to bury their thematic concerns in subtext. Who needs inane reality-show naturalism when you can have life-and-death philosophy delivered at 200 miles per hour?

As Hunt cavalierly describes his car (in Morgan's words, of course), "It's just a little coffin, really, surrounded by high-octane fuel all around -- for all intents and purposes, it's a bomb on wheels." No wonder the ladies find him so damned sexy: Every time at the wheel could be his last. Even Lauda, with his pinched-in cheeks and rat-like face, has spent more time on the brink of death than any sane mortal hopes to experience in a lifetime. Hunt seems to view the time between races as bonus rounds, to be lived to the fullest, and the movie doesn't shy away from depicting his R-rated habits -- or the streak of spontaneous romanticism that inspires him to propose to model Suzy Miller within moments of meeting, condensed from a courtship of several weeks in real life. (As Miller, Olivia Wild makes a strong enough impression one can't help but envy Hunt's chutzpah.)

"Rush" works so well because Lauda embodies everything Hunt isn't, and though he too has the good fortune of meeting and marrying a compatible woman (Alexandra Maria Lara) during the 1976 season, their relationship signifies something safer, more calculated and built to endure. Both racers buy their way into Formula 1, where Lauda engineers a faster car, but Hunt embodies the reckless spirit audiences have come to love. It would be too easy to paint the Germanic pragmatist as the villain here, but the film is more balanced than that. It's as if two completely antithetical philosophies are on the line, and the only way to settle the dispute is on the track.

The thrill of "Rush" would stall if the off-road scenes were any less dynamic, but of course, it's the racing moments that take the film to the next level. Howard seizes the opportunity to innovate in these sequences, denying the boredom inherent in watching fast cars zip round and around the same track, and integrating compact digital cameras directly into the automotive machinery itself. He takes audiences places that human eyes could never fit as the cars hurtle forward at top speed, pioneering an intuitive visual logic that flows from the stands to the cars to the subjective perspective of the racers themselves -- never more frightening than during the climactic Mount Fuji Circuit race, where rain reduces visibility and the drivers may as well be steering by "the Force."

Though "Rush" extends across the duration of Hunt and Lauda's hyper-competitive 1976 season, no two races resemble one another, as Howard and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill find ways to condense an astounding amount of story into a hyper-efficient 123-minute running time. Another filmmaker might have made it shorter still, and yet, Howard recognizes the vitality of every moment, how any sacrifice would diminish what makes these two characters so relatably human. Meanwhile, the racing footage is white-knuckle stuff, even -- or perhaps especially -- when one of them is out for the count, watching on TV while he has his lungs vacuumed in hospital.

To witness this level of storytelling skill (applied to a subject only a fraction of the public inherently finds interesting) is to marvel at not only what cinema can do when image, sound and score are so artfully combined to suggest vicarious experience, but also to realize how far Howard has come since his directorial debut, 1977's bang-up "Grand Theft Auto." The technique is so cutting-edge, it's impossible to tell where the practical photography ends and visual effects begin -- and besides, the two leading men are so enthralling, audiences' minds have little time to drift away from the human-interest story at its core.

Too often in the intervening years, Howard has played it safe, but here, his choices are anything but obvious. He embraces the power of music to heighten the experience, but goes the opposite direction that one might expect with it, using Hans Zimmer's cello-driven score to steer things to a deeper place. The same goes for the story itself: Who else would have imagined Formula 1 as an appropriate conduit for existential self-examination? And yet, you've seldom felt more alive in a movie theater than you will experiencing "Rush."


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