Herald rating: * * * *

Much of the money behind this New Zealand film is Japanese and the Australian-born writer-director is more American than Kiwi these days.

Certainly there is nothing distinctively indigenous in the point of view of a film that regards its main character slightly askance as a goofy innocent abroad. But it will always have "New Zealand" in brackets after its name and that's apt, because Burt Munro is the kind of character who couldn't have been made anywhere else.

Donaldson's take on the story of this remarkable New Zealander is a disarmingly lightweight, old-fashioned, feelgood drama that makes no great demands on its audience. Old codgers don't attract young audiences so it's a kids' film for grown-ups, really.

The story embodies a strong element of our national character: the power of ingenuity and hard work to compensate for a shortage of resources.

Hopkins has said he hasn't enjoyed a film as much and he shows it, turning in a generous, genial and utterly approachable performance. He never gets anywhere near a Kiwi accent - his vowels swoop from the Welsh valleys to the high veldt without ever alighting in Southland - but he nails the backyard eccentric genius dead centre.

Smoothing his toenails with an angle grinder before a night out; peeing on his lemon tree ("You don't waste a thing in this world," he tells his admiring young neighbour, played by the freckle-faced Murphy from Christine Jeffs' Rain); offhandedly telling scrutineers at Bonneville that the petrol-tank stopper on his "motorsickle" is a brandy-bottle cork; he has inhaled the nature of a mid-century Kiwi bloody good bloke and he inhabits the part to perfection.

It's off the main spine of the story that the film stumbles.

Fran (Whittle), a peripheral love interest, is a pretty ill-formed character and Burt's dalliances in the desert with an Indian and a randy widow (Ladd) serve only to use up time.

By contrast, his friendship with a car dealer (Rodriguez) makes for some touching moments and an oafish Tim Shadbolt probably won't make overseas audiences cringe as much as I did.

In other places, though, you can see the carpentry: when Burt picks up a hitchhiking soldier en route to Bonneville, it links us to the times - the middle of the war in Vietnam - but really it's only so he can have someone to talk to when he describes the salt flats as "holy ground".

Still, Donaldson has firm command of the film's last third, in which Burt fights for a chance to ride to glory.

The impression of speed is not particularly compelling in some shots and Hopkins' triumphant "I did it!" is plain silly (how would he know, prone on the salt, what speed he'd reached?) but the arc is remorselessly upward and it's hard to resist applauding.

This is not a great New Zealand film. But it's a bloody good one.

CAST: Anthony Hopkins, Diane Ladd, Paul Rodriguez, Aaron Murphy, Annie Whittle
DIRECTOR: Roger Donaldson
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
SCREENING: All cinemas from Thursday