3 1/2 stars

In the 1991 movie “Rush,” two police detectives — in the process of busting drug dealers — end up becoming users. It was an apropos title and when comparing it to this new film with the same name, it’s easy to understand why they have identical monikers. In the former, “rush” equates to a pharmaceutical high. For the latter, it’s what happens to the brain through endorphins while driving a race car. Although the sources are vastly different the result is the same: the mind slips into a state of pronounced euphoria and in both cases it usually becomes addictive.

Like soccer, Formula One is a sport that hasn’t quite caught on with U.S. fans. We say soccer, they say football. We say Indy, they say Formula One. Even though it is more popular now than it ever was, longtime followers of the sport are essentially in agreement that the 1976 season was the best in history due in large part to the bitter rivalry between Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).

Polar opposites in every possible non-professional way, Hunt and Lauda are the type of complex characters filmmakers absolutly relish. Tall, blond, handsome and a major league party animal, Hunt was all business when he was racing but never let it spill over into his private life. A poster-child for ’70s excess, he did too much of everything and also knew exactly how to get into the head and under the skin of Lauda. Slight, mousy, sub-attractive, far too serious and largely joyless, Lauda lived just to race and it was only through his obsessive, unrelenting drive that his talent eclipsed Hunts’.

Opening with a quick scene set in 1976 Germany, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) kicks it all off in earnest in 1969 when Hunt and Lauda first met while trying to make it on the Formula One “B” circuit. After an ethically questionable maneuver on the track, Hunt went on to win the event and did everything he could in the aftermath to rub it in Lauda’s face. The taunting worked and in mere minutes, Hunt created an enemy who made it his mission to vanquish him — and to do so by sticking to the letter of the sport’s rulebook. He might have been dull, unlikable and anti-social but Lauda was also an honest and honorable competitor.

For the remainder of the two-hour-plus movie, Morgan and director Ron Howard deliver what is an extreme rarity in sports films: they give the action and character development equal attention with the former being the relatively easier task of the two. Although known for headier dramas (“Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” the boxing flick “Cinderella Man” and the talky “Frost/Nixon”) Howard’s first feature was another car movie (“Grand Theft Auto” from 1977), so this wasn’t really new territory for him.

In tandem with longtime editor Daniel P. Hanley and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Howard constructed the racing sequences in a truly groundbreaking manner. In addition to altering the film stock in order to look like it was shot in the ’70s, the trio incorporated angles no one has ever attempted in race movies. This facet of the film will thrill Formula One fans who already know the outcome of each race — and, for that matter, what happened to Hunt and Lauda after the movie ends. From an action perspective, “Rush” is on par with or better than anything seen in “Winning,” “Le Mans,” or “Days of Thunder.” (A note to Formula One fans — if you haven’t already seen it, check out the 2010 “Senna” — a superb biographical documentary about Ayrton Senna.)

It is what takes place off of the track that will rope in audiences who have little to no interest in auto racing or sports movies in general. In addition to being fierce professional rivals, Hunt and Lauda viewed the others’ lifestyles with marked disdain and constantly go back to that first encounter in 1969 to refuel their ever-escalating one-upmanship. Neither feels that winning on the track is enough; they also want to beat (but not thoroughly destroy) each other in the mind game department.

The narrative is not without its moments of moving drama; there is one scene in particular when Hunt — beyond angered by an inappropriate question directed at Lauda by a member of the press — retaliates as if Lauda was his blood brother. This brief scene received the loudest and most enthusiastic applause by the audience at the preview screening and lends enormous credence to what Howard and company were probably striving for: it is possible to exhibit grace and kinship toward someone on a pure humanistic level while simultaneously trying to crush them professionally.

Howard ends the movie with archival footage of the real Hunt and Lauda and a “where are they now” slideshow that not only points out how spot-on he was with the casting of the leads but how time is always the best possible healer of all wounds, visible and otherwise. (Universal)