The World's Fastest Indian opens on a work shed that in the delicate early-morning light resembles a secular shrine to speed and the glory of pushing miraculous contraptions of metal and rubber as fast and as far as they can possibly go. That work shed belongs to protagonist Anthony Hopkins, a lovably daffy, perpetually distracted eccentric and unlikely ladies' man whose attention always seems at least partially devoted to his beloved motorcycle.
Roger Donaldson's warm-hearted new film is an affectionate character study based on the true story of Burt Munro, a New Zealander who in 1967 set land-speed records with a lovingly restored 1920 Indian motorcycle. Hopkins' speed freak begins the film trying to scrounge together enough money for a trip to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats; that journey becomes a sort of sacred pilgrimage to consecrated ground. Once Hopkins makes it to America, the film begins to resemble last year's Schultze Gets The Blues in engagingly depicting just how inscrutable and foreign the United States must seem to outsiders. From there, Donaldson cops moves from both the road-movie and plucky-sports-underdog playbooks, having Hopkins meet and befriend other quirky outsiders before overcoming various hurdles to participate in the speed trials at Bonneville.
Like many road movies, The World's Fastest Indian sometimes suffers from a serious case of the cutes, as when a precious little motorcycle gang that previously menaced and challenged Hopkins later chips in to give him some walking-around money for his U.S. trip. But Hopkins delivers such a warm, winning performance that it's hard not to be won over by his loopy charm and monomaniacal passion. The film is about a man whose need for speed takes on an existential and spiritual dimension, but it's precisely its rambling, meandering, unhurried affability that makes it such a low-key pleasure.