It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before the uplifting sports flick left the realm of the pop-culture marketplace and crossed over into the more rarefied venue of the art-house film. And that’s essentially what this oddly engaging — sometimes just downright odd — little movie is: a feel-good sports movie for the art-house crowd.
Writer-director Roger Donaldson is obviously geared to the creation of such a film without wallowing in the Disney-ized mush of inspirational speeches, lump-in-the-throat crane shots telling the viewer when to tear-up, and a huge dollop of schmaltzy music trying to get at the tear-ducts by way of the ear canal. In the main, he succeeds, while simultaneously falling prey to trying too hard to set his movie apart from the things it most resembles.
The formula is altered here to focus on a quirkier-than-usual subject: Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), a 60-odd-years-old New Zealander with a heart condition, who has spent years customizing a 1920 Indian motorcycle with the dream of breaking the land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. It helps that Munro — at least as written here and played by Anthony Hopkins, in his first not-by-the-numbers performance in several years — is of the crusty-codger variety.
Munro lives in a glorified garage on an unkempt lot in a suburban neighborhood in New Zealand, where he seems to be both a nuisance and a beloved fixture. His yard-care skills are about as desirable as his penchant for firing-up his noisy bike at 5:30 in the morning. It’s little wonder that the neighborhood is happy to see him set sail for the States to realize his dream, but at the same time they genuinely seem to be in his corner — as it turns out, a group of young bikers show up to evidence a surprising show of support when he departs.
The film basically becomes a road movie that’s making its way to the big feel-good moment. (Wondering whether old Burt is going to break the record is about on par with going to a biopic on Madame Curie and questioning if she’ll discover radium.) And as with all road movies, the final result depends on the quality of the encounters the main character has along the way. Donaldson’s approach here is to throw just a little too much quirkiness at the viewer for the results not to feel contrived, though Burt’s encounter and friendship with a transvestite motel clerk, Tina (Chris Williams, Dodgeball), is quietly charming, and his overnight romance with a lonely widow, Ada (Diane Ladd), is a refreshing bit of sexual reality little seen in movies involving folks who’ve stuck around on the planet long enough to merit Long John Silver’s discount cards. His meeting with a used car salesman, Fernando (Paul Rodriguez), works less well, not in the least because Paul Rodriguez simply can’t act.
The film is at its best when it’s wandering around in a somewhat lazy fashion; it works less well when dealing with the actual mechanics of the plot. However, it’s always likable, and that — along with a truly engaging Anthony Hopkins performance — makes it worth a visit. Rated PG-13 for brief language, drug use and a sexual reference.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke