"The salt bug'll bite you," someone says during The World's Fastest Indian, which stars Anthony Hopkins as the world's oldest speed demon. "The salt" refers to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, site of so many land-speed records. New Zealand's Burt Munro set several of them back in the '60s, when he too was in his 60s. And the way Hopkins plays him, he was quite a character, a mad-inventor type whose whole life was a race against the clock. The motorcycle ' an Indian Twin Scout ' that Munro drove to fame, if not fortune, was as old and battered as he was. He'd bought it in 1920, when he was 21, and it was supposed to top out at 54 miles per hour. Instead, after years of tinkering, it topped out at over 200 miles per hour. As Hopkins' Munro says, referring to both man and machine, "It all goes by so fast."
To its credit, the movie doesn't, although it has its moments. Writer-director Roger Donaldson, who once made a documentary about Munro, has turned this inspirational story into a quirky road movie that spends as much time over on the shoulder as it does barreling down the center line. After an opening sequence set in Invercargil, the small Kiwi town where Munro is, depending on who you talk to, a hero or a nuisance, we head off to the Land of Opportunity, where he encounters a rich assortment of Homo Americanus. There's the drag queen who carts him around L.A. in her VW bug, the Native American medicine man who prescribes ground-up dog bones for his prostate problems, the desert widow (Diane Lane, as vivid as ever) who prescribes herself for his libido problems, not that he's having any libido problems.
No, when it comes to charming the ladies, Munro is firing on all cylinders, although Hopkins is careful not to overplay the Grandpa Stud-Muffin angle. This is an emphatic change of direction for the actor who licked his chops while quizzing Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. And Hopkins, who specializes in tortured ' not to mention torturing ' souls, seems to be having the time of his life playing someone who was indomitably happy and just plain indomitable. Munro isn't exactly a complex character; at heart he's a gear-head, content to spend hour after hour in his shed. But Hopkins gives him little grace notes of humor and warmth ' e.g., the little laugh that finishes off most of his sentences. Beautifully shot, The World's Fastest Indian favors late afternoon, when the waning light gives everything a soft glow. And yet, as Munro knows, there's a lot of ground to cover before darkness descends.