Chris Hemsworth, left, is the boring but pretty Formula One driver James Hunt, and Daniel Bruhl is Hunt’s crabby Austrian rival Niki Lauda in
Chris Hemsworth, left, is the boring but pretty Formula One driver James Hunt, and Daniel Bruhl is Hunt's crabby Austrian rival Niki Lauda in "Rush." (Associated Press)

3 stars

Movies about auto racing seldom have personality to match the spectacle, unless it’s a cartoon like “Lightning McQueen” or a buffoon like Ricky Bobby. That isn’t a problem with “Rush,” based on a real-life rivalry of fire and ice competitors, steered by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard with the dramatic velocity of a Formula One race car.

Like the Jackie Robinson biopic “42,” “Rush” addresses a story so compelling, so essential to its sport’s history yet inspiring beyond that it is amazing modern Hollywood hasn’t told it before.

In 1976, two Grand Prix drivers as different as their race car specifications were alike, engaged in a seasonlong battle interrupted by catastrophe and resumed by sheer will. James Hunt was the fire, a brash British playboy who seldom passed up a party or tryst. Niki Lauda was the far more disciplined ice, an Austrian whose demands for precision on and off the track paid off with plenty of wins and not many friends.

Their competition was close until the Grand Prix stop in Germany, when Lauda’s car wrecked and was engulfed in flames, critically injuring the driver. Hunt’s path to the championship appeared clear, until Lauda’s miraculous comeback, bandaged and unbowed, with just enough time to challenge. It’s mythic, except choosing a hero between these two is tough.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays Hunt with scoundrel flair, striding into scenes fully aware of his sexiness yet not relying solely upon it. Even better is when Hemsworth reveals what’s behind Hunt’s cocksure smile; insecurities about trailing Lauda and a fashion-model wife (Olivia Wilde) running around with actor Richard Burton. In such a moment, Hemsworth proves himself to be the level of actor his kind of look doesn’t usually portend.

The movie’s finest performance is Daniel Bruhl’s unapologetic bluntness as Lauda, and his subtle conveyance of jealousy the driver whose resemblance to a rat is often noted must have felt about Hunt’s popularity and handsomeness. Despite their characters’ caustic relationship, Bruhl and Hemsworth reveal a symbiotic bond, each needing the contempt of the other to reach another level of excellence.

“Rush” is also the impressive technical achievement its Grand Prix setting deserves, with Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera caressing both sleek racing machines and hard bodies as they zip, veer and occasionally crash. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell where archival footage ends and reenactments begin. The danger of this sport is ever-present, not only to a driver in “a little coffin surrounded by high octane fuel,” but the ears of spectators, making the sound department’s decibel moderations more challenging. The ’70s design and costumes are spot-on, and Hans Zimmer’s musical score is another winner on his resume.

Howard hasn’t grabbed hold of a subject with such passionate results in quite a while; it’s no coincidence that his first directing job ever was “Grand Theft Auto” (the Corman movie, not the video game). Yet this isn’t a movie solely for gearheads. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, a primer in Grand Prix specs and garage intrigue, regularly adds gossipy touches, making “Rush” uncommonly well-rounded entertainment taking the checkered flag.

Rated R — strong profanity, grisly images, nudity, sexual, drug and alcohol content.