Of all the different types of popular professional athletes out there in the world, there's something undeniably unique about the allure of race car drivers.  Unlike any of the individual sports like golf or tennis or team-oriented sports like football, soccer, and basketball, that extra level of legend, lore, and appeal for the many forms of auto racing can be wholly and utterly traced to one thing: DANGER.  In under a century, 56 men have died at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 24 at Daytona, 25 at Le Mans, and 48 at Nurburgring in Germany.  In no other professional competition does the risk of life and death hang in the balance with every second of the sport the way it does in auto racing.  That instinctual intrigue of not being able to look away from disaster is one of the sport's greatest draws.

Because of that, the drivers and competitors involved possess a mindset of intensity greater than other athletes.  Sorry, Ray Lewis and every other so-called intense NFL player.  Dance all you want to get fired up for your sport and go hit people with pads and helmets on.  Extreme sports stars?  Ride your little ramp and snowboard your little slope.  Let's see any of them keep their edge at approaching 200 miles per hour behind the wheel of a machine with mere inches between you and disaster that could kill you with every lap for hours at a time.  That level of life-and-death risk makes successful race car drivers mythic figures on another plane of athletic reverie.

Auto racing itself is a chess match of repeated laps that can go on for hours.  Compared to other sports shown in movies, that repetition is not very "cinematic" for the big screen.  Let's face it.  The same laps and speed can get old.  Ask any parent who's seen Cars with their children 375 times and they will echo that.  Still, in the right hands, the exhilaration and allure of that aforementioned danger for race car drivers and films about them make for unique movie experiences.

The trouble is proper films about professional racing have been overshadowed by the informal street racing scenes of stuff like The Fast and the Furious franchise and even good-old Cannonball Run.  The success of that sub-genre has overshadowed the Mount Rushmore of racing films occupied by Grand Prix with James Garner, Le Mans with Steve McQueen, and Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise.  Heck, in the 23 years since Days of Thunder, we've had to settle for mockery like Sylvester Stallone's inaccurate Driven, the Pixar twin-bill of Cars andCars 2, the zany and cartoonish Speed Racer from 2008, and Will Ferrell spoofing NASCAR with 2006's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  

In this critic's opinion, the one brilliant outlier is the 2010 documentary Senna which follows the career of the late Brazilian Formula One legend Ayrton Senna and his rivalry with Frenchman Alain Prost, shot with a wealth of archival footage in the middle of the action while holding back on the usual documentary time-fillers of retrospective interviews and voice-over commentary.

After the documentary success of Senna, we've been overdue for something serious about auto racing and the right hands again to come along.  With the new film Rush, directed by Academy Award winner Ron Howard, we have just that.  We have a legitimate historical story and a seriously talented filmmaker.  Technically sound in every way and employing today's quality of visual effects, Rush chisels its own place on that Mount Rushmore of racing films as an instant classic.

Scripted by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), Rush covers the 1976 Formula One racing season and a rivalry between two top drivers that would change their careers.  James Hunt, played by Thor 's Chris Hemsworth, is a cocky Brit who lives every bit the decadent lifestyle his status affords him.  Across the garage is Austrian Niki Lauda, the defending F1 champion, played by German actor Daniel Bruhl of Inglourious Basterds and the upcoming The Fifth Estate.  They have been rival a-holes to each other since first crossing paths on the Formula Three circuit six years earlier.  The razor-focused Lauda is everything Hunt is not, occupying a cool, calm, and collected attitude and fueled racing success based on precision over risk.  Hunt is the classic rebel that values the edge he risks his life on with every race.

After Lauda leaves Formula Three with a substantial bank loan to buy a spot on Team Ferrari's Formula One squad alongside featured driver Clay Regazzoni (Pierfrancesco Favino of World War Z), Hunt ascends with him by replacing the departing Emerson Fittipaldi on Team McLaren as a last-minute hire.  On the main stage, their rivalry is renewed.  Off the track, Hunt and his enigmatic and gregarious personality make him well liked both publicly and within the sport.  He marries supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), while the Lauda prefers to loom over the field as a man to be feared.  Still, he too confides in and marries socialite Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara of Control and The Reader), giving him something to live for off of the track.

Both men's courage and resolves are tested after a tragic accident at the rainy German Grand Prix on the notorious Nurburgring race course (nicknamed "The Green Hell") changes the dynamic of the 1976 season.  If you've seen the early trailers or know the history of the rivalry, this turning point is spoiled, but I'm still going to stop here and let you see it for yourself.  Building up to that event and continuing afterwards until the climax, the racing scenes of Rush are spectacular and some of the best I've seen put to film.

Using period-detailed cars and replicas, I, for one, cannot tell 90% of the time where the CGI takes over from stunt driving.  British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (127 HoursDredd) shines a 1970's film stock glow to everything while keeping the camera movement fluid enough to follow the action with a surprising smoothness.  Many racing films overdo the speed, angles, and movement causing many queezy stomachs and headaches in the audiences that ruin the excitement.  Rush does not.  Thanks to a pulsating score from Hans Zimmer backing the action, I found myself glued to my seat and feverishly tapping my foot on the floor during those set pieces.  In that regard, the film lives up to its title.

Ron Howard and Peter Morgan have crafted and built a sports drama as solid and polished as any seen in the last several years, regardless of the sport.  Even non-racing fans can be drawn into this kind of story and be impressed with the end result.  Where Rush impresses further is in delivering a sports drama without cheesy sports film cliches.  There are no grand monologues or rousing locker room or garage speeches.  There isn't a clear good triumphing over manufactured evil for dramatization's sake.

There are simply two determined drivers, opposite to each other but neither labeled as protagonist or antagonist, gunning for the same prize and same respect.  The women and side stories are way secondary. The real Niki Lauda himself recently praised the film being as close to perfect with the true rivalry as he thought possible in a movie with no Hollywood-style changes.  I think that quality shows greatly with the performances of Hemsworth and Bruhl.  Both command screen presence when featured and both earn each other's and our own respect before the story ends.

LESSON #1: THE CLASSIC DUEL OF PRECISION VERSUS TALENT-- Most sports have this active dichotomy among the talented individuals involved.  Some are successful because they rely on God-given talent and ability while others succeed through precision and calculation.  This clash of schools of thought and execution always make for fascinating rivalries and competitions.

LESSON #2: BEING LIKED COMPARED TO BEING FEARED-- Respect and favor can be earned in two ways.  As a side example, I'll digress from auto racing to professional wrestling.  Everyone likes and loves the "babyface," but a smart fan still respects and fears the "heel."  Even though there is no clear good guy or bad guy among Hunt and Lauda, like their dueling abilities, they reputations off the track compete as well in Rush.  

LESSON #3: WHAT WINNING MEANS AND BRINGS TO EACH VICTOR-- Make no mistake.  Both of these men are winners and champions.  They are more than just good at what they do, but winning affects each of them differently.  Hunt is a "to the victor go the spoils" kind of guy that celebrates and relishes in the moment.  Winning is winning for him.  Lauda uses victory as a label of being the best.  However, at the same time, he uses it as another goal that has to be validated with future performances.

LESSON #4: WHAT RIVALRIES BRING OUT IN THE TWO COMPETITORS INVOLVED-- It would be easy to just steal the poster taglines of Rush that talk about courage or what drives a racer as my final lesson, but that would be too easy.  Let's talk about how a rivalry raises the game of both competitors involved.  These two men already have extraordinary intensity, courage, sacrifice, and skill as the winners and high-level competitors they are.  What a good rivalry does is increase each of those qualities to an even greater level through extra motivation that leads to greater success and, eventually, greater mutual respect.