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Go, speed racer

Indian spins wheels until big race

In The World's Fastest Indian, Anthony Hopkins plays an old coot bent on proving he's got the Right Stuff. Set in the mid-1960s, the fact-based story follows New Zealand's Burt Munro, an elderly garage tinkerer striving to compete in a world-famous racing competition in Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Burt's souped-up 1920 Indian motorcycle provides a none-too-subtle symbol for Burt himself: old, rickety and obsolete, but capable of going the distance.

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When Burt finally unveils the motorcycle's bright-red paint job and streamlined torpedo shape, it gives new meaning to the term "crotch rocket." In the film's effective, high-velocity cycling scenes, Burt looks like a man clutching a missile and using all his powers to keep it under control.

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In Indian, Hopkins' acting resembles Burt's motorcycling. The Oscar winner's performance proves focused, skillful, compelling and essentially solitary. Written and directed by Roger Donaldson, the film's feel-good rendition of Burt's experiences seldom gives Hopkins any strong characters or juicy conflicts to play against. The rich, expansive portrayal takes place in a vacuum, lacking the fiery interplay of, say, Hopkins vs. Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs or Hopkins vs. Emma Thompson in Howard's End. Instead, The World's Fastest Indian amounts to a one-man show.

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The film unfolds in three sections. First, we catch up with Burt at his small-town home as he labors to get his bike ready and scrape up the money to go to America. His mates rally around him and hold a raffle to raise funds, but they don't seem to really "get" him. Indian harks back to an era before the Internet, when obsessive enthusiasts pursued their pastimes in virtual isolation. There's a blandness to Burt's scenes with the young boy he mentors and the older woman he romances, but we catch glimpses of his passions when he describes how to build the perfect piston. (Dozens of blown-out pistons litter a shelf marked "Offerings to the God of Speed.")

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Eventually, Burt journeys to America for a series of "what a country!" encounters with quirky characters like a Hollywood drag queen, a wholesome young soldier on leave from Vietnam and even a genuine Native American (setting up an inevitable "Indian" joke). We hope Diane Ladd's merry widow will provide Hopkins with a worthy sparring partner, but her appearance is just a glorified cameo.

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Indian's road-trip scenes tweak the American dream. With his by-the-bootstraps ingenuity and determination, Burt could be an honorary American citizen, but he finds the United States to be a country of both opportunity and opposition. He frequently has to pour on the charm to win over skeptical customs agents and highway patrolmen.

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The film discovers a little friction when Burt makes it to the lunar landscape of the Bonneville Salt Flats and gets to hang around with fellow speed freaks (featuring fun turns by Walton Goggins and Christopher Lawford). Once we see Burt in the company of peers, we realize how risky his plans really are. Racing officials seek to bar him from competition due to his age and jerry-rigged motorcycle (whose components include a cork and a door-hinge): "No brakes, no parachute, no fire suit."

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Indian's browbeating follow-your-dream platitudes take unexpectedly grave implications. Burt really could die while trying to set a land-speed record, so his drive to prove himself seems like not just gesture of personal fulfillment, but a borderline death wish. A "whose life is it anyway?" debate underpins the film and deserves further exploration. Excitement mounts when Burt discovers 11th-hour problems and improvises solutions — although the suspense is somewhat mitigated by the awareness that, since we're watching a film about Burt, he must have done something memorable.

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With a feisty codger taking an allegorical American journey on an unlikely vehicle, The World's Fastest Indian evokes the lawnmower road trip of David Lynch's The Straight Story. But Indian's speed scenes can outrun its clichés about competition or the United States. Who would guess that a lawnmower could overpower a motorcycle?