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'Fastest Indian' takes some time to develop

It has nothing to do with New Delhi or the Old West. ''The World's Fastest Indian" is about a motorcycle, and as any informed motorcyclist knows, the Indian is an elite breed with a storied history.

Just stop reading here if you don't want to know some of that history before you see the movie.

In this touching but uneven film written and directed by Roger Donaldson (''The Recruit," ''No Way Out"), Anthony Hopkins plays Burt Munro, a legendary New Zealander who in the 1960s shot to fame as one of the oldest people ever to set a land speed record. Munro's chariot of choice was a 1920 Indian Twin Scout, painstakingly restored and refined by its frugal rider using (if the screenplay is accurate) everything from a kitchen door hinge to the cork off a brandy bottle. It propelled Munro to speeds greater than 200 miles per hour, which might not sound like much today, but consider that Munro's bike -- manufactured at the hallowed plant in Springfield -- was designed to top out at 54 m.p.h.

Donaldson's passion for his subject is never in question. He became acquainted with Munro in the early 1970s, when the director was making a documentary for New Zealand television called ''Offerings to the God of Speed." Apparently he's held onto the hope of making a dramatic version of the man's story ever since, which may be why ''The World's Fastest Indian" begins by revisiting the ''offerings" phrase, scrawled in chalk along an altar of bike parts in Munro's shed.

That shed is also Munro's home, by the way.

The sexagenarian Kiwi cyclist is a near-deaf eccentric who revs his engine at all hours and fertilizes his lemon tree by peeing on it. It's not a promising start that he's befriended by a wide-eyed boy (Aaron Murphy) with disapproving parents -- the first part of this film is cliched and unmoving; it only really has a chance when it hits the open road.

Jolted by bad news from his doctor, Munro decides it's now or never: His lifelong dream of clocking the Indian at full throttle rests on traveling all the way to Utah's famed Bonneville Salt Flats in time for Speed Week. So he packs her onto a cargo ship and sets off, destined to overcome many fish-out-of-water obstacles with the cheery help of a transvestite (Chris Williams), a used-car salesman (Paul Rodriguez), and Diane Ladd as a one-night stand.

The film is at its best in Utah, both because in David Gribble's exhilarating cinematography we finally get to feel the full power and intoxication of the sport, and because Hopkins's layered but large performance becomes less of a focal point. The triumph comes when Donaldson (who last directed Hopkins in ''The Bounty") strips away the clutter to a wordless image of man and machine.

History dictates that you know how the story ends. Still, the heart beats no less fast when you watch Munro's Indian rocketing across those salt flats. You can see how it might be enough to justify a journey halfway around the world.

Janice Page can be reached at

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