Engines roar at deafening volume in "Rush," Ron Howard's high-octane movie about Formula One racing legends dueling for domination in the mid-1970s. At its heart, though, "Rush" is a thoughtful story about two smaller, much slower creatures: the grasshopper and the ant.
Remember them, from Aesop's fable? In this version, the carefree grasshopper is James Hunt, a British playboy slopping over with raw talent and charisma but lacking in the discipline department. Played to perfection by a golden-haired Chris Hemsworth ("Thor"), Hunt is the embodiment of the high-shag '70s, a European dreamboat whose blue eyes and deep-V shirts mesmerize every stewardess, nurse and model in his path.
Hunt's polar opposite, the hardworking ant, is Niki Lauda, a mirthless, methodical Austrian played with intensity and sly humor by Daniel Brühl, a relatively new Spanish-German actor who was in "Inglourious Basterds." Thanks to Brühl, Lauda's utter soullessness becomes the film's most dependably funny gag. "Happiness is the enemy," he tells his wife on their honeymoon.
In another movie, either of these men -- the arrogant hunk, the frozen robot -- might have been our villain. But screenwriter Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon") has a deeper insight. Hunt is more of a Tom Cruise type, a cocky kid heading for a hard lesson. Lauda provides it by becoming world champion. Competing against Hunt during a neck-and-neck season in 1976, Lauda survives a horrific accident and returns -- still bleeding from surgery -- to compete in the final race at Japan's Fuji Speedway. It turns out these archrivals are both heroes. (Helping shade in the characters are Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara as their very different wives.)
The movie's racing scenes can feel hollow. Howard tries to build excitement with impossible close-ups inside combusting engines, but these add visual flair, not visceral impact. "Rush" is most interesting when it's off the track and asking a fairly profound question: Which is the right way to live? Aesop came down firmly in favor of the ant, but "Rush" has a more thought-provoking answer.
PLOT In 1976, Formula One superstars James Hunt and Niki Lauda battle for world supremacy.
CAST Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde
BOTTOM LINE Plenty of speed and volume, but what really drives this movie are the fine performances from Hemsworth and Brühl as personalities clashing on and off the track.