As depicted in Ron Howard’s exhilarating “Rush,” Formula One racing drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) had nothing in common other than their will to prove their doubters wrong.

Hunt, from England, is the pretty boy, with an insatiable appetite for women and booze, carrying himself like a rock star even when he’s racing in the lower-class Formula Three. The actor portraying him is best known for his multiple turns as a god among men (“Thor”). The Austrian Lauda, nicknamed “The Rat” due to his distinct overbite, is serious and disciplined to a fault, lacking anything resembling social skills. The actor portraying him is virtually unknown.

The rivalry between these two men festers for years, becoming personal as it reaches its peak in 1976. It drives them to acts many would equate with insanity, careening around dangerous curves at more than 200 mph in weather that would keep most off the highways, let alone the race track.

Yet for all the animosity between them, they need each other — for that extra edge and motivation on the track, and perhaps another, deeper reason.

It’s only when they’re behind the wheel, putting their lives on the line for the thrill of the race and the challenge of coming out on top, that either one feels truly alive. Neither is whole in his personal life, though both marry and rise above their stations to find the success they crave. Peter Morgan’s script envisions them essentially as two halves of one person, Lauda all super-ego, Hunt the out-of-control id. Whether they are conscious of it or not, each sees in the other what he lacks in himself — deep down, envy fuels the rivalry from both sides.

There is no hero or villain here, even when tragedy strikes and offers an easy route to that destination. “Rush,” despite a title implying nothing but pure speed, is much too nuanced for that.

The racing scenes, brought to gloriously vivid life by Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), evoke that feeling of the title with cameras and angles that don’t just place us within the cars but virtually inside the drivers’ heads. And it has meaning because we know what is going on inside those heads.

Hemsworth and Bruhl each give award-worthy performances, subtleties deepening their characters as the movie progresses. Hemsworth, doing the best work of his career to date, digs deep to find the man hidden within the playboy, while Bruhl goes toe to toe with Hunt’s outsized persona, developing layers beneath Lauda’s often abrasive attitude toward those around him. In a movie that does action so well, the best scenes are quiet moments when Hemsworth and Bruhl share the screen and simply talk to one another.

“Rush” is not really about racing or even the Hunt-Lauda rivalry. It’s about the Hunt-Lauda relationship that grows from their rivalry, an incisive character study cloaked in a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled sports picture.

Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use. 123 minutes.

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