There always seems to be something endlessly fascinating going on inside the characters played by Anthony Hopkins, and it's not merely the suggestion of an inner life. The men he's played -- whether it's Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs"; Stevens, the preternaturally stoic butler in "Remains of the Day"; C.S. Lewis in "Shadowlands"; or Richard Nixon in "Nixon" -- all share a seemingly oxymoronic quality of Zen unconsciousness.
Hopkins' men -- often in the grip of aching repression -- are so focused that they literally have to be shaken back to the world around them. Rather than distancing the audience, the characteristic pulls us in closer, eager to see what makes them tick.
Burt Munro is no different, but rather than repressed he's irrepressible. In "The World's Fastest Indian," Hopkins portrays the sexagenarian New Zealand pensioner who hopes to set a land speed record for motorcycles in 1963 -- a man who doesn't take no for an answer and would rather die trying than give up his dream.
Grinning beneath a thick New Zealand accent and a well-earned layer of grime, Hopkins charms us into looking past the film's "Crocodile Dundee" corniness and the story's possibly unavoidable predictability to experience a man's quest for grace.
Based on the real-life exploits of Munro, it's a boilerplate fish-out-of-water/road trip/underdog sports movie -- but it's a heck of a ride with Hopkins leading the way. Spouting such folksy wisdom as "If you don't go when you want to go, you'll find when you do go, you've already gone," Burt lives in a shed where he also works on his prize machine, the titular 1920 Indian motorcycle (or "sickle," as he says it), assisted by the young boy next door, Tom (Aaron Murphy), who is perhaps the only person who doesn't think the old man is daft.
As annoyed as his neighbors in the small town of Invercargill are by the incessant noise Burt creates, they treat him as a lovable eccentric, passing the hat to help fund his long-planned trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for an assault on the record book. Deaf as a doorknob, presumably from decades of revving engines, Burt needs every other sentence repeated (a gag that runs out of steam rather quickly) but manages to woo and bed a friendly, age-appropriate bank teller named Fran (Annie Whittle), a frolic that leads to the discovery of acute heart disease.
But Burt is not easily deterred. He books passage on a freighter to Los Angeles only to find that part of his fare involves cooking the crew's meals. In L.A., the movie lurches into broad Paul Hogan territory as Burt gapes at the miles of cars, befriends a transvestite Sunset Boulevard hotel desk clerk (Chris Williams), buys a barely running vehicle from used-car salesman Paul Rodriguez and fashions a makeshift trailer for the Indian before hitting the road for Utah.
Out of the city, "The World's Fastest Indian" gets back on track as Burt encounters a Native American man (Saginaw Grant) who offers a shamanist remedy for his prostate problem, an amorous widow (Diane Ladd) and a young serviceman on leave from Agent Orange duties in Vietnam (Patrick Flueger).
The dry lakebed at Bonneville has been hallowed ground for decades for those seeking extreme speeds. When Burt arrives, it is an experience of spiritual dimensions.
Writer-director Roger Donaldson has wanted to make a feature about Munro since the early 1970s, when he met the unlikely mechanical genius and shot a documentary called "Offerings to the God of Speed" for New Zealand television. His great affection for the character and history with Hopkins, who played Capt. Bligh opposite Mel Gibson's Fletcher Christian in Donaldson's 1983 "The Bounty," gives the film a personal touch that overrides its lapses into sentimentality.
Since his breakthrough 1981 feature, "Smash Palace," Donaldson has shaped a long Hollywood career in which action has generally been one of his fortes. And aside from Hopkins' performance, "The World's Fastest Indian's" strongest attribute is the racing sequences.
For though the movie may be quaint and at times overly familiar, it achieves its goal of being inspiring while portraying a man's singular pursuit of excellence.
'The World's Fastest Indian'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief language, drug use and a sexual reference
Times guidelines: Mildly salty
A Magnolia Pictures release. Writer-director Roger Donaldson. Producers Roger Donaldson, Gary Hannam. Director of photography David Gribble. Editor John Gilbert. Costume designers Nancy Cavallaro, Jane Holland. Music J. Peter Robinson. Production designers J. Dennis Washington, Rob Gillies. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
At AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 289-4262, through Thursday; reopens Feb. 3.