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'Scotsman' takes cycling to an extreme

"The Flying Scotsman" tells the tale of an eccentric cyclist determined to set the World Hour Record. (MGM Distribution Co.)

"The Flying Scotsman" gets something right few true-life sports movies even notice: Professional athletes can have all the charisma of wet laundry.

When they're not doing what they're put on this earth to do, that is. Tearing around a velodrome on a bicycle, the Scottish racer Graeme Obree was magical. As Jonny Lee Miller ("Trainspotting" ) plays him in Douglas Mackinnon's new film, though, Obree is a bit of a blank page. Lanky and pleasant-looking, yet cursed with wellsprings of sorrow that bedevil his career, he has zero interest in fame. He's a trained greyhound who only sees the track ahead, and when the edges of the frame blur in the film's point-of-view racing shots, it's because for Graeme there isn't anything beyond.

That obsessive self-absorption both shackles "The Flying Scotsman" and serves as its main point of interest. Obree's story isn't well-known outside cycling circles but it's a good one: a "man from nowhere" who rode his home-built bike -- it used ball bearings borrowed from a washing machine -- to the World Hour Record in 1993 and again in 1995 .

Fighting hidebound racing officials who ban his unorthodox bicycles and riding positions (the "egg, " the "superman "), battling depression throughout his career, Obree is one of those curiously fraught figures who regularly pop up in cycling, less colorful for his personality than for the stuff that just keeps happening to him. He's a character in spite of himself.

The movie tells the tale in dutiful fashion, right down to the spinning headlines, but it never solves the mystery of its central figure. We meet Obree as his early road-racing days are in the past, when he's working as a bike messenger; a fellow rider, Malky McGovern (a composite character played by "Lord of the Rings " hobbit Billy Boyd ) becomes a friend and manager as they decide to tackle Francesco Moser's record in the World Hour, a benchmark that had stood for nine years.

The World Hour Record is a straightforward affair: You dress up in a ridiculous streamlined outfit, get on your bicycle, and ride around a wooden indoor track like a maniac. The person who covers the most ground in an hour holds the record. Eddy Merckx , by most accounts the greatest cyclist of all time, said his 1972 record ride was the hardest thing he ever did. "The Flying Scotsman" makes it look like a grueling hell.

Adapted from Obree's 2003 memoir of the same name, the film stops and genuflects at all the critical junctures, and it drops hints that the hero's childhood experiences with bullies both equipped him with a need to outrace the world and crippled him with doubts. Because the three screenwriters never settle on a through-line, though, subsidiary characters like Laura Fraser as Obree's loving wife and Brian Cox as a supportive priest don't come into focus. Steven Berkoff , respected stage actor/director and former "Beverly Hills Cop " villain, sneers through his one-note role as Ernst Hagemann , the official who does his best to quash the upstart.

Miller gives the right performance, though, and his Graeme is always intently listening to something the rest of us never quite hear. It's not the actor's job to make this focused crackpot genius meet us halfway; it's the film's job, and Mackinnon and company don't manage it. Still, if you ride for pleasure or for sport -- or just to get from one place to another -- "Scotsman" is worth seeing.

Anyway, how many bicycling movies are there, let alone ones that know from frame geometry ? "Breaking Away " is probably the champ, followed by "American Flyers, " the hilariously awful Kevin Bacon bike-messenger movie "Quicksilver ," and then we're already into "The Bicycle Thief " and "Pee-wee's Big Adventure ." It's a small pack, and "The Flying Scotsman" rides close to the front by default.


The Flying Scotsman

Directed by: Douglas Mackinnon

Written by: John Brown , Declan Hughes , Simon Rose

Starring: Jonny Lee Miller , Billy Boyd , Brian Cox , Laura Fraser

At: Boston Common, Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic elements, strong language)