Rush, a film about two real-life titans of Formula One racing in the Seventies, splits its narrative between these oil-and-water personalities, which feels about right: It's only half of a good movie.
If you filter the rivalry of the Austrian Niki Lauda (Brühl) and the British golden boy James Hunt (Hemsworth, dazzling but one-dimensional) through a child's lens – why not, the film pits them as sulky schoolboys trading taunts – then the cautious and precise Lauda is all about coloring between the lines, whereas the daredevil cocksman Hunt would rather shred the coloring book into confetti in anticipation of his next win. Hunt's is the flashier part, one long romp through high hedonism (only limply explored), but Lauda's is the more interesting, and the film suffers when it strays from Brühl's superlative performance, all clenched teeth and coiled pounce.
Director Ron Howard has had a curious career, bouncing between populist entertainments (The Da Vinci Code, EdTV) and more prestige-minded pictures (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon). What's consistent throughout is a sure-handed showmanship served with, shall we say, a good hunk of cheese. In the dumb music cues (let's all agree to retire "Gimme Some Lovin,'" eh?) and sex stuff shot with the enthusiasm of a professional prude purple-nurpling himself till he cries uncle and acquiesces to an erotic encounter, that Velveeta-grade cheese goops all over what feels like an earnest effort at something grittier and more artful. And there is real artistry here – in the gorgeous saturated colors, the tensely and thrillingly rendered race sequences, and the dramatic heft of that one-half of the plot. Rush may begin as a two-man race, but Brühl's Lauda wins by a landslide.