Well, this is an unexpected development: Ron Howard has made a James Bond movie — a very good James Bond movie.
In the director's sure, smart new Rush, rivals with European accents chase each other around the world, exchange barbs on their way to do gentlemanly battle, and coolly persist under constant threat of death. Their world is one of fast cars, exotic locales and amorous women.
Rush's men aren't spies but a pair of 1970s Formula One drivers. James Hunt is the pretty Englishman, comfortable among the refined backers who call him "Superstar" but at home only behind a visor and hurtling around a deadly course. Niki Lauda is Hunt's Austrian nemesis, a fussy details man who prefers calculation to instinct and seems unfazed by the cruel nickname his dismissive hauteur and hatchet face have brought him ("the Rat"). The automotive engineering, track safety and loose oversight of their day's races meant that a swift, fiery end wasn't just a risk — it was a statistical probability.
Playing the real-life duelists are Chris Hemsworth (slabby but Byronic, just right) and Daniel Brühl (allowed to do more than his co-star but never doing too much). Hemsworth is familiar to American audiences as Thor, god of thunder and property of Marvel Comics; Brühl is an arthouse import (Good Bye Lenin, Inglourious Basterds) new to big-studio projects. That we recognize them both but imagine we know one better than the other is a casting choice indicative of Howard's usual strong craftsmanship.
Craft has always been this director's thing, but that hasn't been enough for him in these recent, Dan Brown-larded years. Frost/Nixon, from 2008, showed renewed signs of intelligence trumping prestige for its own sake, but Rush (scripted, like Frost/Nixon, by Peter Morgan, who makes witty biographical drama look easy) is Howard's most satisfying and purely entertaining work since 1995's Apollo 13. Here we have another true story, set in a just-previous era, that casually immerses the audience in a foreign culture whose broad gestures translate without difficulty. Both movies are centered on jeopardy, velocity and the kind of sangfroid we might call post-machismo. And both are hair-raising.
What's different this time, though, is a cinematographer Howard hasn't used before. Director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle — the brilliant go-to for everyone from Harmony Korine to Danny Boyle — uses vintage lenses but has shot Rush digitally. The result is gorgeous, with a bright palette that heightens Howard's most kinetic moviemaking yet. The editing team remains Howard's longtime collaborators Dan Hanley and Mike Hill, whose work here suggests they, too, are juiced by the novelty.
Howard, who turns 60 next spring, is about to shoot a fact-based whaling picture, with Morgan adapting Nathaniel Philbrick's book In the Heart of the Sea and Mantle again behind the camera. Rush makes you believe that this often too-reliable director is ready to surprise.