Good auto-racing films are rare.
For a while in the '60s and '70s, the genre drew such stars as Elvis Presley ("Speedway"), Paul Newman ("Winning"), Al Pacino ("Bobby Deerfield") and James Caan ("Red Line 7000"); but perhaps only "Cars," "Days of Thunder" and "Grand Prix" stand out.
Ron Howard's "Rush" swiftly takes a place near the top of this list - but calling it an auto-race movie is simplistic.
Above, a scene from “Rush”?shows and Niki Lauda (left, Chris Bruhn) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth)?getting personal.
Rival characters James Hunt (left, Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Chris Bruhn) face off in a Formula 1 race during the film “Rush.”
Indeed, for all the technical brilliance of Howard's "Backdraft," "Apollo 13" and "Cinderella Man," it's easy to forget that this director can also sweep you into the lives of people you never thought you'd care about.
That's the strength of "Rush," which focuses on Grand Prix racing stars James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
Their real-life rivalry came to a head in 1976, when Lauda was horribly disfigured - and nearly killed - in a fiery crash; he returned to compete against Hunt only six weeks later.
Neither man is particularly likable in this film: Hunt is a reckless playboy whose marriage takes a back seat to his work; and Lauda, meanwhile, is stiff and conceited - he doesn't seem to know how to have any fun.
So it was all the more shocking to find myself alternately stressed-out and teary-eyed in several late scenes.
At times the film achieves its potent emotion by shameless manipulation - among other things, making the rivalry much more hostile than it seems to have been in real life.
Particularly tough to swallow is the scene in which a reporter asks a post-crash Lauda how his marriage can survive "now that you look like that."
No newsman would posit such an appalling question; and I didn't like Hunt's reaction either - but darned if the scene doesn't work anyway!
It should be noted too that "Rush" is much more explicit than other racing films - earning its R rating with nudity, strong language, frank sexuality and gory car-crash carnage.
Except for the horrific close-ups of Lauda's burns - crucial to showing us the extent of his wounds, and his bravery - most of this graphic material feels gratuitous; it could easily have been trimmed for more family-friendly viewing.
Technically the film is first-rate, with racetrack scenes that are swift, expert and jarring - I literally jumped in my seat when Lauda crashed, even though I knew it was coming.
But decisions and relationships are Howard's focus, and there may not be quite enough racing footage to satisfy die-hard fans. In addition, the film doesn't clarify the cause of Lauda's crash - a key point, since it probably wasn't related to the rainy conditions that the film plays up.
Nonetheless, "Rush" is yet another top-drawer product from the veteran Howard, who has now tackled boxing, mathematics, old age, romance, Nixon, NASA and fire-fighting. On top of that, he just finished filming Nathaniel Philbrick's "Heart of the Sea" and is in talks for Neil Gaiman's "Graveyard Book."
Is there anything this guy can't do?