It's big, brash and dramatically it goes in circles. The first two may be enough for most people, especially if they're into Formula One racing, to overlook the third.
With "Rush," director Ron Howard brings a long, earnest career's worth of expertise to bear on a two-headed Formula One biopic, dramatizing the rivalry between dashingly louche Englishman James Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth, and the rigid, cautious Austrian ace Niki Lauda, portrayed by Daniel Bruhl. The Grand Prix competition between Hunt and Lauda in the 1976 racing season, full of tense reversals and scary track conditions all over the world, is more than enough movie for a movie. On a technical and atmospheric level, Howard and his collaborators have a ball with the 1970s-ness of everything, from the hair to the clothes to the widescreen, supersaturated images of blazing color.
For Howard, who started out directing features 36 years ago with "Grand Theft Auto," "Rush" ushers him back into his own past (he was acting on "Happy Days" on TV during this time) while allowing him to exploit his filmmaking knowledge. There's a fair amount of digital effects work in the racing sequences, designed to push you ever closer to the high-velocity death lurking around every hairpin curve.
If "Rush" feels a little hollow, the reason lies with screenwriter Peter Morgan, whose play "Frost/Nixon" Howard filmed, to pleasing results. Morgan has long proved himself adept at intertwining, interdependent biographical studies. In "The Queen," for which Helen Mirren won her Oscar, the character of British Prime Minister Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen) achieved equal narrative importance.
In "Rush," Morgan treats the men jockeying for position throughout as contrasting pencil sketches of '70s-era princes behind the wheel. One is a sober, meticulous character, the other a carouser who must be taught, by life and circumstance, to respect his rival. "Twenty-five people start Formula One," Lauda explains at the beginning, "and each year, two die. What kind of person does a job like this?"
A gut-wrenching crash plays a major part in this story, by factual necessity, though to be sure Howard is not making a documentary here. (For a terrific Formula One documentary, do yourself a favor and see director Asif Kapadia's "Senna," about the Brazilian Grand Prix racer Ayrton Senna and his rival, Frenchman Alain Prost.) By nature a cautious and tidy dramatist, screenwriter Morgan's sensibility is at odds with the material. The writer doesn't do much of anything with Lauda, establishing him as a by-the-book prig and leaving it at that. Also, the multilingual Bruhl ("Inglourious Basterds") works hard, but he's pretty dull on screen.
If the film finds an American audience, it'll be because of Hemsworth, best known for swingin' the hammer in "Thor." Hunt, a charismatically reckless party boy, is the kind of guy (according to the script, if not real life) who proposes to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde, in a swank variety of enormous hats) mere seconds after they meet. Hemsworth lives for excess, and just as Hunt brought a boozy sort of panache to the sport, Hemsworth conveys genuine enthusiasm for whatever he's doing on screen without going over the top.
Where the events of 1976 took these two is fascinating history. But "Rush," while never dull, rarely feels dramatically alive; it hits its marks dutifully and darts onward.
"Rush" - 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use)
Running time: 2:03