“Rush,” Ron Howard’s vividly engaging Formula 1 racing movie, could be an updated take on the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare — except here the tortoise is ripping along at 200 mph as well. The film, working from a script by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”), dramatizes the mid-1970s rivalry of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), European racers who between them represented the alpha and omega of competitive drive.
Both are wealthy sons of disapproving families (British in Hunt’s case, Austrian in Lauda’s) but the similarities stop there. Hunt is a hedonistic playboy — a blond surfer dude with wheels instead of a board — and Hemsworth, the once and future “Thor,” gives the part an irresistible swagger. Lauda is a humorless Teutonic with a mind like a gearcase. One’s a babe magnet, the other doesn’t have the time or knack. One is beloved even by his rivals, the other is disliked even by his friends. One drives to live and the other lives to drive.
If it weren’t for that odd-couple dynamic — the drama of two mismatched men who somehow excel at the same thing — “Rush” wouldn’t be much more than the sum of its spinouts. Aside from the fine 2010 documentary “Senna,” we haven’t seen an entry in the professional racing genre in quite some time — “Cars 2” doesn’t count — and it makes sense that a commercial craftsman like Howard might be drawn in. All that gleaming machinery, all those crashes, all that speed. “Rush” lives up to its box-office imperative with racing sequences that are state-of-the-art, immersive marvels of high-octane camerawork and whiplash editing. If the drivers risk losing their lives, the audience faces death by a thousand cuts.
Still, it’s what happens off the track that stays with you. The story starts in 1971, with Lauda struggling to be taken seriously by the macho men of the European racing circuit and Hunt a young stud in the Formula 3 minor leagues. The latter’s already in possession of such natural hunkitude that an emergency room nurse (Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones”) stops dead in her tracks out of sheer lust. Morgan’s script is faithful to actual races and outcomes, if not to the relationship between the two men, who were reportedly much friendlier than the film lets on. (Then again, the real Lauda served as a production adviser, and if he wouldn’t know, who would?)
Fictionalized or not, when Hunt and Lauda eventually meet on the racecourse, it’s with a mixture of scorn and insecurity. The drama of “Rush” is the ways in which they earn each other’s respect lap by lap, win by win, setback by setback. The movie surrounds the two leads with separate scrums of moneymen and mechanics: Hunt has his wonky aristocratic sponsor Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay swanning about in an ascot) and devoted grease-monkey “Bubbles” Horsley (Julian Rhind-Tutt); Lauda finds backing with Enzo Ferrari (Augusto Dallara), the old man of Italian sports cars, and a grudging teammate in the more experienced racer Clay Regazzoni (Pierfrancesco Favino).
But all these other characters — including household names like Mario Andretti, who’s referenced but never seen — fade away before the spectacle of two men who just can’t figure each other out. Hunt calls Lauda a “rat” because he doesn’t honor the natural hierarchy of the racing world and because, frankly, he looks like one. Lauda takes it as a compliment: Rats are industrious, stubborn, indestructible. Hunt, the golden boy, furrows his brow in near-total jock confusion.
The heart of their rivalry, and the heart of the movie, is the 1976 racing season, in which Hunt and Lauda vied for leadership over the course of 16 races on five continents before events got weird. It helps if you’re coming to “Rush” not knowing anything about high-speed European track racing or these particular characters. Building on the personalities, Howard creates a remarkably involving atmosphere of suspense. His movie puts you in the stands, in the pit, behind the wheel, occasionally inside the actual engines. Most importantly, it gets you inside the drivers’ heads.
At a certain point in the season, one of the characters suffers a drastic reversal of fortune — go ahead, look it up on Wikipedia if you want to spoil the suspense — and “Rush” unexpectedly becomes a drama of human perseverance, inspiring only because it’s real. (If it were fictional, the audience would be hooting in disbelief.) In the process, our sympathies subtly shift, not in a white hat-black hat sense but in terms of which of the two men might be stronger off the track, after the season ends. Where Hunt at first struts with rock-star superiority, we come to see him as a hapless and increasingly touching figure. And Lauda — well, watch the movie to see how the gifted German changeling Brühl traces the character’s arc from grim certitude to tortuously won grace.
There are women — notably Olivia Wilde with a dollybird accent as Hunt’s increasingly fed-up spouse, model Suzy Miller, and Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda’s stalwart wife, Marlene — but they’re here mostly to prove that the heroes occasionally care about something other than cars. Anyway, “Rush” is ultimately more concerned with mind than motor oil. It’s about the differing attitudes, the approaches to life, needed to compete at the highest level: what works, what doesn’t, what makes sense over the long haul versus what gets you to the finish line right now. In a way, Howard has made a philosophical drama about the way men move through the world. It’s just a really, really fast drama.