The World's Fastest Indian

Opens Fri., Feb. 3, at Metro and others

A well-tuned hybrid of the sports-movie and road-movie genres, this pleasing oddity from New Zealand director Roger Donaldson (Thirteen Days) is all about Anthony Hopkins. And while the actor's decision to reinvent himself as a cuddly codger threatens to put Hannibal Lecter permanently out of mind, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Hopkins plays real-life Kiwi racing legend Burt Munro, who spent decades transforming a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle (hence the title) into a bare-bones speed machine. As the film opens in 1962, we see Burt tinkering with bike parts and going about his daily routine, which includes urinating on his lemon tree. (It helps the tree grow, he tells the curious neighbor boy.) Burt's eccentric, avuncular behavior could have come off as cloying, but it doesn't; Hopkins inhabits the character so completely that we understand his quirkiness as the lens through which he sees (and responds to) the world. The movie also draws us in by showing us the nuts-and-bolts aspect of Burt's work on the bike: He modifies it using a brandy cork and a door hinge, then cuts the tread off the tires with a kitchen knife. He may be a lovable old coot, but he knows his shit when it comes to two-wheelers.

Donaldson, who based his screenplay partly on his 1972 documentary profile of Munro, Offerings to the God of Speed, livens up the story with flourishes of magical realism. When Burt attends a party in his hometown of Invercargill, a motorcycle gang inexplicably crashes it—and challenges him to a race. When the old man arrives in L.A. en route to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats (where Munro set two land-speed records), he encounters a colorful collection of types, including a fast-talking used-car salesman with a heart of gold, winningly played by Paul Rodriguez. The climactic Bonneville scenes, filmed on location, are crisp; there's a frontier excitement about them that convincingly evokes what the place might have been like in the early '60s. Indian's slightly over-the-top sweetness, which often makes it feel like a children's movie, is a good framework for Burt. He's like a big kid himself, consumed by impulse and enthusiasm and wonder at the changing state of the world, the mesmerizing vulgarity of the U.S., and, above all, the simple rush of speed. (PG-13)

 
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