Opening with James Hunt and Niki Lauda jockeying back and forth for the lead in the

1976 Formula One World Championship, this sports biopic traces their real-life racetrack rivalry.

With the good looks and arrogance of a Greek god, Great Britain's James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) lived competitively and raced recklessly, as opposed to Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), an Austrian pragmatist who was far more interested in designing and building the best race car than in being the most acclaimed racer. Both came from families that did not support their racing aspirations, so it was the swaggering playboy vs. the strategic perfectionist on European racetracks during the 1970s.

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Off-the-track, their lives were equally divergent. Ever-flirtatious Hunt impulsively proposed to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) within moments of meeting her, yet doomed their marriage with continual womanizing, so no one was surprised that it ended with Suzy running off with actor Richard Burton. In contrast, strait-laced Lauda married Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara), a compatible, loving, understanding woman.

Working from an elegant, engaging script by Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon," "The Queen"), this action drama is perfectly cast and confidently directed by Ron Howard ("Apollo 13," "Frost/Nixon"), whose preparation included studying Asif Kapadia's 2010 documentary "Senna" about the great Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna. Hunky Australian Chris Hemsworth, best known as Thor in "The Avengers," is appropriately flamboyant as the sexy British daredevil, but it's Daniel Bruhl, the Spanish-born German actor from "Inglorious Basterds," who steals every scene. Nicknamed "The Rat" because of his prominent overbite, decidedly unglamorous Lauda was disciplined and blunt, even brusque, with those around him but every bit as compelling as Hunt. FYI: after retiring, Lauda worked as a BBC Sports commentator; Hunt died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 45.

Credit cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Slumdog Millionaire") for thrillingly tense racing sequences, often viewed from the driver's perspective, and Hans Zimmer's score for enhancing the contrasting imagery.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Rush" is an exciting, exhilarating 8, enthralling even for those who are not into automobile racing.