Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’ is an awards contender

“Rush” is a movie that reminds us what a great storytelling medium film can be.

Evocatively set in the real world of 1970s Formula 1 racing, “Rush” focuses tightly upon one of the sport’s great rivalries: gifted Brit playboy James Hunt vs. the ultra-disciplined Austrian genius of driving and racecar design, Niki Lauda.

The two young men seemingly have nothing in common but their ability to drive super-fast cars around the world’s racetracks faster than their Formula 1 competitors.

Hunt is movie-star charismatic and handsome. His early backer, Lord Alexander Hesketh, third baron of Hesketh, nicknames him Superstar. Hunt achieves rock star popularity. He parties like a rock star. He’s lusted after like a rock star.

Women, Hunt says in voiceover, are attracted to racecar drivers because of their closeness to death. The closer to death, the more one feels alive.

And Lauda? Not handsome, not charismatic, not even liked. Lacking such qualities can’t prevent the determined Austrian from pursuing his quest to be the Formula 1 world champion.

“Rush” arrives on screen with the help of director Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon,” “A Beautiful Mind”) and screenwriter by Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”). It’s even better than their acclaimed earlier, Oscar-winning work.

Amidst the thrill of victory on the track, “Rush” doesn’t gloss over the risk that drivers expose themselves to. Thirteen Formula 1 drivers died in accidents from 1967 to 1975. The specter of an especially gruesome death hovers over Hunt and Lauda.

After Lauda’s 1975 world title win, his and Hunt’s ultimate prize becomes the 1976 title. At first it appears that Hunt can’t possibly overtake his rival. But an upset in the season’s fourth race, the Spanish Grand Prix, suggests that the Englishman can’t be counted out.

As the suspenseful “Rush” follows Hunt and Lauda on the international racing circuit, including Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, Monaco and Great Britain, Hunt and Lauda’s episodic high-speed chase is gripping.

Chris Hemsworth, the Australian actor who did hunky superhero duty in “Thor” and “The Avengers,” shows his acting metal as Hunt. Sporting long blond locks for the role, melting hearts and tires, he’s so right to play Hunt. Hemsworth gets into Hunt’s skin, moving past the playboy image to show a driven competitor who functions in an ingeniously natural way.

German actor Daniel Brühl co-stars as Lauda, a character who overwhelmingly fits Germanic stereotypes of hard work and humorlessness.

Hemsworth and Brühl make the competitive spirit in Morgan’s script roar onto the screen. It’s to the writer’s and actors’ credit, too, that the drivers’ relationship holds something deeper than confrontation.

Besides being a great cinema portrait of an epic rivalry, “Rush” features plenty of tires-on-the-track action. Obviously an awards contender in the acting, directing and writing categories, honors for the film’s take-you-there editing also seem in the cards.