Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara
Running time: 122 minutes
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Score: 8/10

Full disclosure: I didn't have high hopes for Ron Howard's Rush going into it.

It's about race-car driving, a sport that, unless you grew up like Ricky Bobby (or Jean Girard, actualy), more often than not gets tuned away from when ESPN airs it. Furthermore, Howard isn't the most reliable of A-list Hollywood filmmakers: For every Apollo 13 (1995) or Ransom (1996), there are two or three snoozers like Angels & Demons (2009) and The Dilemma (2011).

Those factors combined to put Rush low on my priority list, but now that I've seen Rush? Color me both ashamed and gobsmacked. One of the year's best films so far, it's an exhilarating, two-handed character study buoyed by a pair of excellent performances. It's also a foolproof crowd-pleaser, as exhibited in yesterday's TIFF screening, which ended with a loud, vibrant round of applause.

Based on true events, Rush, which takes places from 1970 through 1976, follows the rivalry between Formula 1 hotshots James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl, better known as Frederik Zoller in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds). They were Formula 1's Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in their day. The British Hunt was the hard-partying playboy whose personality garnered as much attention as his on-the-track accolades, while Austrian Lauda was the curmudgeon, a straight-laced, fun-hating rich kid with eyes the never left the prize. Their paths crossed frequently, dating back to their earliest days wheeling around tracks as Formula 3 amateurs. When Hunt married the gorgeous and uppity supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), Lauda was always there to, in his own cold yet subtly caring ways, point out the shortcoming of his rival's marriage. Whenever Lauda's efforts to get his fellow racers to agree with him on professional matters failed, Hunt wasted no time suggesting that Lauda ought to lighten up a bit. In both competition and in life, they were each other's enemies and indirect motivators.

What makes Rush such a triumph is how screenwriter Peter Morgan spends more time exploring the personal sides of the Hunt/Lauda dynamic, affording each one his own ample opportunities to win over the audience. It's clear that neither Howard nor Morgan want viewers to pick sides—the feud was constructive, not destructive, a positive tit-for-tat between two talented, likable guys who, under different circumstances, probably would have never paid one another any mind. But through racing, they complemented each other perfectly. The same goes for Hemsworth and Brühl, two very different actors whose strengths are on full blast before Howard's camera. Expanding on the brawny charisma he's made look effortless as Marvel's Thor, Hemsworth owns the screen here—he's funny, slick, and, most importantly, wonderfully vulnerable. For his part, Brühl—who's given a tougher task once Lauda suffers nearly fatal burns from a horrific racetrack accident—finds the right balance between humorless tightwad and admirable goal-seeker.

Had Howard kept Rush all about its human interactions and talkier moments, the film would have been just as effective, but this isn't an art-house drama—Rush is flashy Hollywood filmmaking at its finest, with a built-in hook for accessibility: numerous live-wire racing sequences. All of which are supercharged, breathlessly staged knockouts. There's none of the repetition or boredom that comes from sitting at home watching the Grand Prix on television, with funny-looking automobiles whizzing by at breakneck speeds but resembling blurry dots; in Rush, Howard rapidly alternates from interior and exterior shots, the former ones focusing on eyeball's-view images that put the viewer directly into the driver's seat, making those impossible turns feel realistically unfeasible. It's enough to make you think Howard's secretly trying to show the Fast & Furious franchise's producers how it's done.

Even though there's only one car-caused explosion in Rush, a small-scale one, no less, Howard's pedal-to-the-metal visuals thrill just as much as anything seen in Fast 6. Add on the fact that Hemsworth's and Bruhl's acting chops make those of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker look like community theatre and there's really no contest: Rush is the year's most exciting car movie. And sports movie. And Chris Hemsworth movie (sorry, Thor: The Dark World). Not to mention, one of 2013's most pleasant surprises.