"Rush" may or may not be a big hit at the box office. But it definitely will cause a spike in speeding tickets among people driving home from theaters.

Actually, "Rush," which opens Friday, likely will be a hit among lovers of action thrillers and sports movies, along with movie snobs who need a screaming roller-coaster ride every now and again. It has more things going for it than one might think. In other words, the Oscar buzz surrounding the film is warranted.

Director Ron Howard -- not necessarily known for seat-of-the-pants action -- takes his audience into the high-adrenaline world of Formula One auto racing, thanks to some snappy editing and cinematography that seemingly pulls you onto the racetrack and into the death-defying cars. It's a sexy, sometimes messy look at a sport that is often both -- and we get to see the stars at both their best and worst, without overglorification. Much of the credit for the well-paced, well-developed story goes to screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon").

The thing about "Rush" is it seemingly adopts a good-guy-vs.-bad-guy premise early on, but it quickly morphs into much more. It's based on the true story of the 1976 Formula One season and the rivalry between two of racing's top drivers: British party boy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and serious, and desperate, Austrian World Champion Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). The two could not be more different and more suited to a bitter rivalry.

In this Oct. 24, 1976 photo, Austrian auto racer Niki Lauda, right, defending champion in world driving, and James Hunt, of Britain, look at the rain
In this Oct. 24, 1976 photo, Austrian auto racer Niki Lauda, right, defending champion in world driving, and James Hunt, of Britain, look at the rain before the start of the Japan Grand Prix Formula One auto race at Fuji International Speedway, Gotemba, Japan. (Nick Ut/AP Photo, File)
Hunt is handsome, gregarious and naturally talented; Lauda is aesthetically challenged and acerbic and has had to work for everything he has earned. You're even reminded at one point that they were on opposite sides of two world wars. On the surface, it seems rather easy to pick one to root for.

The rivalry goes back six years, to when both drivers were lighting up car racing's lesser circuits. As they move up, there is lots of jealousy between the two, not to mention name-calling, trash-talking and on-track battles. By the time both are in their prime, during the 1976 Formula One season, Lauda is defending world champion, and Hunt is right on his tail as second-best.

Hemsworth's portrayal of the cocky and troubled driver is first-rate. He shows his acting chops as Hunt's overindulgent lifestyle and bad reputation cost him personally and professionally (in other words, the role is a far cry from Thor). Brühl is just as good, if not better, as the relentless Lauda who, even as the reigning champ, always seems to have something to prove.

Yes, there are some seriously high-octane racing scenes in "Rush," but the film is really a personality study of two incredibly competitive athletes who are opposite in almost every way and who genuinely detest each other. Their rivalry is high-stakes, personal, pointed and, sometimes, even humorous. Both men can be alternately likable and contemptible.

However, a funny thing happens about halfway through "Rush." Lauda goes from being stuffy and unsympathetic to something closer to heroic. His serious, obsessive nature becomes a virtue as he attempts to come back from a serious setback. Kudos to Howard for not shying away from a scene that, while painful to watch, magnifies both the dangers of the sport and Lauda's resilience.

Of course, the championship of the season in question isn't decided until the end, with a bit of a twist in an otherwise predictable finale. Perhaps most rewarding is that by then, it's much tougher to choose sides.

"Rush" is much more than a sports film, partly because of how Howard approaches the film and partly because the very nature of Formula One racing creates as visceral a sense of danger as any beast or natural disaster. You spend at least half the movie on the edge of your seat, and not just because you're rooting for someone to win or lose.

"Rush" offers great action and drama, largely because it takes great pains to bring us inside a world that has both.

Contact Tony Hicks at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/insertfoot.

'RUSH'

* * *

Rating: R (sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images, brief drug use).

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino

Director: Ron Howard

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes