'The grudge match of the decade!" a sportscaster roars, as rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, a swaggering playboy Brit and a rigorously fussy Austrian, rev their Formula One machines and get ready to fly. It's the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, the circuit dangerously slick with rain, the climactic race of the year.

Everything in Ron Howard's epic and exhilarating Rush builds to this point. Two guys hopscotching the globe from one Grand Prix to the next, going impossibly fast. Sometimes Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) would win. Other times, Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Who will take the World Championship?

Rush toggles seamlessly back and forth between the two men and their backstories, their voice-over narrations, their love lives (Hunt's is a Hugh Hefner fantasy gone wild). In between, they jump into cars - Ferraris, Heskeths, McLarens - and zoom down the blacktop, spinning, careening, rocketing on.

Rush, which marks a return to form (and more so) for Howard after plodding through adultery buddy movie comedies (The Dilemma) and Dan Brown sequeldom (Angels & Demons), is almost primal.

"The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel," Hemsworth's Hunt announces, offering a Psych 101 thumbnail of his motivations, the meaning in his life. A party-till-you-drop daredevil with shaggy blond locks (just shy of Thor-length) and a hunky charm that nurses and airline stewardesses find irresistible (yes, hospital room and in-flight liaisons ensue), Hunt has a sixth sense when it comes to racing: He visualizes the course, anticipates maneuvers, turns corners, and guns through the slimmest of openings. To say he is fearless would be wrong - he hunches over and vomits before every race - but Hunt has a reckless nerve, and verve. Hemsworth radiates that energy, that craziness. He's great.

Lauda, played with a clinical cool by Brühl (soon to be seen in The Fifth Estate), is the opposite. He's a pragmatist, urging team engineers to make his car lighter, faster. He calculates risk factors like an accountant going over the books. He's ferrety, with squinting eyes and a cruel smile - but he does smile, he can be funny. And while Hunt goes off and weds an English model (played with a '70s swing and an all-right-Jack accent by Olivia Wilde), Lauda finds love with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), a woman he meets at a party. They run off together, and their It Happened One Night hitchhiking scene in the Italian countryside takes an amusing turn.

Rush looks like it was shot by a microbiologist, not a cinematographer - it's full of close-ups of the actors' pupils dilating, of valves and cylinders pumping, of crash-helmet visors catching reflections, supersized. Anthony Dod Mantle, Danny Boyle's go-to director of photography (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), creates a color-splashed, magnified, sliced-and-diced world. There's an overhead shot of Hunt's and Lauda's cars, captured in the light and the rain, that turns these "bombs with wheels" into rare exotic tropical fish. They even have fins.

Howard must have watched Senna while prepping Rush. The 2010 documentary about Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, himself a racer for the McLaren team (a decade after Hunt), makes great use of a camera mounted over the late, legendary driver's head. The effect is wild and vertiginous, and Howard gets that same effect here.

Rush, like it says in the opening credits, is based on a true story, and anyone with an interest in the sport already knows what happens to Hunt and Lauda on the 1976 Grand Prix circuit. If you don't, and don't want to, stop reading now.

But it should be noted that the toughest scenes in Rush aren't on the track - they're in a German hospital room, where Lauda is taken with severe burns after being trapped in his Ferrari in a fiery spinout at the Nürburgring Grand Prix. His lungs are vacuumed. His skin tissue scarred, scorched, dermabraded.

Rush has an elemental simplicity about it. Two men in competition, driven (so to speak) to win. They are enemies. But they need each other, too, and as they roll around at 170 m.p.h., they come to understand why.