(EW.com ) -- Back in 1977, Ron Howard made his directorial debut with a low-budget, high-octane car-crash comedy called "Grand Theft Auto."
As first impressions go, it did not signal the second coming of Orson Welles. But the freckle-faced former "Happy Days" star radiated an infectious delight in smashing as many roaring muscle cars as he could get away with.
Since then, of course, Howard has become one of Hollywood's most consistent and respected filmmakers, crafting well-made crowd-pleasers that tackle more highbrow subjects. But judging from his white-knuckle new film, "Rush," he hasn't outgrown his youthful sweet tooth for four-wheeled mayhem. He still has hot rods and the death-defying men who drive them on his mind.
Based on the real-life rivalry between Formula One racing legends James Hunt and Niki Lauda, "Rush" is a tale of two opposite personalities eyeing the same checkered-flag goal: winning the 1976 world championship. Chris Hemsworth draws the flashier role in Hunt, a fast-burning British bad boy with flowing blond locks, silk shirts unbuttoned to his navel, and a rakish playboy swagger.
On and off the track, he's wild, cocky, and undisciplined — a deadly combination when you're strapped into a coffin on wheels going 170 miles an hour. ''The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel,'' Hemsworth's Hunt says. And it's thanks to the "Thor" star's champagne-spraying charisma that he makes risking your neck look like the coolest job on the planet.
As Lauda, "Inglourious Basterds'" Daniel Brühl buries his boyish good looks behind ratlike prosthetic teeth. With his clipped Austrian accent, everything that comes out of his mouth sounds like a brusque insult. And it usually is. He may not be a particularly likable fellow, but he's a methodical grinder with the unshakable conviction of someone who's calculated the odds on what it takes to win. Pitted against each other, they're like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. It's not just about beating the other guy, it's about humiliating him in the process.
Howard's film is at its best when the rubber meets the road. "Rush" traces the thrilling, neck-and-neck 1976 season from start to finish, hopscotching from Brazil to Monaco to Japan. Even though the film hurtles from one exotic locale to the next, the speedway sequences never feel repetitive — and they never let up on the gas.
More than in any racing movie since 1966's "Grand Prix," the action scenes capture the daredevil kick of sitting in the cramped, claustrophobic cockpit of a Ferrari, zipping around hairpin turns as tires squeal and engines roar.
Things aren't quite as thrilling off the track. When they're not putting the pedal to the metal, Lauda and Hunt are painted as broad archetypes — the bad and the beautiful. It doesn't help that both men are given a perfunctory love interest (Olivia Wilde for Hemsworth and Alexandra Maria Lara for Brühl), neither of whom feels fleshed out or is given much to do other than look worried. They're as much spectators as the fans in the stands.
It's only in the last third of the film that Hunt and Lauda become flesh-and-blood human beings instead of videogame avatars. Jockeying with each other to become the leader in the standings, the two men arrive at Germany's Nürburgring track, where drizzly conditions prove why the harrowing course is called the Graveyard.
Lauda, ahead in points, argues that it's too dangerous to race and that the event should be canceled, while Hunt uses his back-slapping charm to get the other drivers to vote Lauda down. Naturally, disaster follows as Lauda, barely able to see through his rain-soaked visor, crashes in a grisly fireball, horrifically burning his face and lungs. As he struggles to recover in the hospital, Hunt closes in on first place, which in turn fuels his enemy to rehabilitate faster and return to battle.
The thought of a man covered in monstrous third-degree scars wincing in agony as he pulls his racing helmet over his head so that he can get back behind the wheel may sound insane. But as both Howard and millions of racing fans around the world know, it's also compelling human drama.
"Rush" hits a few potholes, but in the end it reveals the psyches of two men who only feel alive when they're cheating death. Grade: B
CLICK HERE to Try 2 RISK FREE issues of Entertainment Weekly
© 2011 Entertainment Weekly and Time Inc. All rights reserved.