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In Ron Howard’s Rush, Chris Hemsworth is the charismatic feel-gooder who, with his shining eyes and swoony smile, will fill the seats playing 1970s British Formula 1 racing legend James Hunt. The lesser-known Daniel Brühl, as Hunt’s Austrian rival/frenemy Niki Lauda, goes head-to-head, both fictionally and professionally, with the actor best known to audiences as Thor. And Thor loses.

That doesn’t mean Hemsworth wasn’t a terrific casting choice as the hedonistic playboy champion. But Brühl, whose Lauda is serious, cerebral, and, as Hunt repeatedly refers to him, ratlike, gives a performance as masterfully precise and consistent and Lauda’s work ethic. The character is called unlikable—-but he’s also admirably blunt and so thoroughly knowledgeable about his sport, even back when he was a no-name, that both the actor and Lauda command your respect.

Oh, and there’s racing, too, which may come as a bit of a surprise if you know the screenwriter is Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, which Howard also directed, and The Queen). The film covers the period from 1970 to 1976, showing both Hunt and Lauda clawing their way up from the Formula 3 level. Lauda instantly dislikes Hunt, thinking him reckless; Hunt more shruggingly returns the aversion. Both walk away from their first confrontation muttering, “Asshole.”

You need only a quick Googling to find out how the story proceeds, so there’s little point in recapping it besides mentioning that both men rose to the top of their sport, for the most part alternating trophies. Howard astutely presents their many races, which could get really dull really fast, by sticking to highlights (including one spectacularly re-created crash) and montages. There’s a fair amount of archival footage mixed in, an easy if effective way to evoke the era.

When Howard does get down to the asphalt, he does a fair job, using not so much a shaky cam but a shivering one as motors rev to unthinkable speeds and offering viewpoints from the tires up to the drivers’ lines of sight. (Which provide added tension during rainy, foggy races.) There are a couple of heart-stopping “Holy shit!” moments, though perhaps not enough. Pit stops, however, have rarely seemed so exciting.

But Howard and Morgan are largely genteel, human-condition filmmakers, so naturally there’s a surely fictionalized scene near the end in which Hunt and Lauda have a complimentary, expletive-free conversation that turns into minispeeches about life lessons. Apparently, behind every cutthroat, adrenaline-surged action, there’s a philosophy.