'Rush' Rated R: 123 minutes

Three and a half stars out of four

Maybe Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan are perfect opposites: one a swinging playboy, the other a cold calculator.

They have twice now collaborated on what you might call coin-flip films. Their latest, Formula One thriller "Rush," is a lot like their "Frost/Nixon," only on wheels.

Chris Hemsworth plays the English bounder James Hunt, a dashing head of blond hair whose daring-do and high-class accent turn women into mush. Daniel Bruhl plays Niki Lauda, an analytical Austrian with pointy front teeth and a complete dearth of what you might call people skills.

Whereas Hunt is a classic, carousing, big-ego racer, Lauda is a methodical tactician. The film, based on the lives of the two famous racers, captures the climax of their collision in the 1976 world championship that came down to the final race and featured a crash that left Lauda's face terribly burned.

Just as "Frost/Nixon" marveled at the contrast of flashy TV newsman David Frost and the curmudgeonly Richard Nixon, "Rush" (also set in the '70s) toggles between Hunt and Lauda. Howard's film is propelled by the clash of styles that repels them from one another, even as their mutual dedication draws them closer.

Racing films often speed inevitably toward clichés of fast-paced living catching up to the men behind the wheel. "Rush" has plenty of that - the adrenaline-fueled death dance required for the checkered flag.

But it veers away toward something much sweeter: a simple ode to rivalry.

Without Thor's hammer in tow, Hemsworth looks unburdened in a role perfectly suited to his natural bravado. Bruhl, though, is even more compelling. The German-born actor (who also makes a strong impression in the upcoming WikiLeaks drama "The Fifth Estate"), makes Lauda, with a clipped Austrian accent, endearing in his obsessive pursuit.

It's not only one of the better racing films, it's one of Howard's best. For Morgan, it's yet another example of his great talent for taking seemingly minor true stories and expanding them.

Whatever the nature of Howard and Morgan's collaboration, it seems to be pushing them - like Hunt and Lauda - to greater heights. (By Jake Coyle/The Associated Press)