The World's Fastest Indian

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The World's Fastest Indian
Review (9.5/10)
(By Ron Henriques)

The Need For Speed

More than twenty years since their collaboration on "The Bounty", director Roger Donaldson and Anthony Hopkins reunite to tell a story you've almost surely never heard of. "The World's Fastest Indian" is a title I remember Hopkins mentioning during a recent interview about his upcoming projects, but I never knew what the film was about. Was it another one of those generic sports movies where a white man like Hopkins trained an Indian to be a track star? Or was Hopkins himself playing an Indian just as he played a black man in "The Human Stain"? I think there have been too many films like that and I honestly didn't want to see this one. My real job which pays the bills often prevents me from seeing every film I'd like, so why should I make the time for one I had no interest in? I had little time for another one of those inspirational "based on a true story" movies, but as a favor, I intended to keep my promise of covering this one. Was it worth my time? Well, I'm pleased to say that it was just the shot of movie magic I needed. This happy time of year isn't happy for everyone and a film like this can be the right medicine.

This holiday season, audiences may be turning their attention towards another New Zealand production, namely from "King Kong" director Peter Jackson. But before Jackson saw his first movie there was another kiwi that helped put this diverse nation on the map. Hopkins stars as Burt Munro, an old timer living in 1963 Invercargill with a heart and drive that would give teens a run for their money. As a motorcycle enthusiast, Burt may seem an eccentric old fool to the neighbors he keeps awake at night with his constant mechanics, but in the eyes of young Tom (Aaron Murphy) he's a visionary. Much to the chagrin of his parents, Tom's relationship with Burt is a lot like Doc Brown and Marty McFly, with Tom as the young assistant and Burt, the crackpot inventor. Burt spends much of his time living off of pension checks and modifying his outdated 1920 "Indian" motorcycle with everything from a welding kit to trimming the tires with a carving knife "borrowed" from Tom's mother. He's also a pretty fearless man and is not above accepting a challenge to race a motorcycle club of young men across a beach.

Burt's life long dream is to clock his modified Indian bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and when he discovers he's developed a weak heart; his girlfriend Fran (Annie Whittle) encourages him to start his journey before time runs out. By mortgaging the property his cinder-block work shed/home occupies, he gathers up enough cash to pay for a boat trip to the U.S. and purchase a car once he gets there. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Burt embarks on a road trip that would seem formulaic if only it weren't so damn funny and heartfelt. He gets "taken for a ride" by a greedy cab driver and even swindled out of a few bucks by a street walker, but everything starts to go right when he crosses paths with the transvestite clerk of a sleazy Hollywood motel. Not only does Burt shrug his shoulders at the revelation that Tina (Chris Williams) is a man, but by treating her like a lady he touches her heart and begins a series of encounters on his long journey to Utah. Along the way he makes fast friends with a used car salesman (Paul Rodriguez), receives a little roadside assistance from a real Indian (Saginaw Grant), gets a little affection from a widow living in the desert (Diane Ladd) and offers some friendly advice to an idealistic hitchhiking soldier (Patrick Flueger) just back from a 'Nam project called "Agent Orange."

When Burt finally makes it to Bonneville, he learns to his dismay that registration for the race closed several weeks earlier. Even worse is the fact that the officials fail to take him seriously and look at his battered Indian as a fossil. With tires trimmed by a kitchen knife, a cork as a gas cap and a lack of a safety parachute or brakes, Burt's Indian doesn't even follow any of the safety guidelines. And yet Burt's intelligence, charm and sense of dignity are just the right elements that may inspire fellow racing enthusiasts to convince the officials to bend the rules just a bit so the man may realize his twenty-five year dream.

"The World's Fastest Indian" does indeed sound like one of those inspirational movies that tries to manipulate and uplift it's audience with quirky situations and cardboard characters who find themselves caught up in the lead actor's unique spirit. Burt does manage to touch the lives of those he encounters on his journey, but what gives it a sense of realism is writer/director Donaldson's "less is more" approach. Donaldson's association with the real Burt Munro began several years before his death with the 1972 documentary "Offerings to the God of Speed". Not only did Munro put his hometown of Invercargill, NZ on the map but his talent for winning people over came from his enthusiasm and charm. What better man than Hopkins to bring Munro's story to life and what an amazing job he does. Since his success with "The Silence of the Lambs" it appeared that Hopkins had become the Michael Caine of movies by taking the money and running with appearances in soulless big Hollywood productions. He's put in some elegant work from time to time, but seeing him in a small, personal and heartfelt production like this one is what makes moviegoing worth while.

Hopkins' Burt Murno doesn't radically change the lives of those he meets, but he manages to connect with them on a level of respect and intelligence. It's his interaction with fellow cast members that makes the picture work and the fact that his encounters with them are brief give the story a greater sense of realism. He's probably never going to cross paths with these people again, but his old-fashioned method of treating strangers like old friends is what makes them fall under his spell. Hopkins has played eccentric characters before, but his flawless use of a New Zealand accent provides a performance that's new and makes his character warm and approachable. Members of the young biker club often may mock him and call him "grandpa" but you do get a grandfatherly sense from Hopkins with that self-deprecating sense of humor where he doesn't take himself too seriously. You share in his great enthusiasm for bikes, engines and everything mechanical and his technical discussions which range from the centrifugal force that makes tires expand to the aerodynamics of his bike's outer shell are simple to follow. There's also the threat that he may not even make it to Bonneville when he constantly pops nitroglycerin pills to ease the increasing sharp pains in his heart.

I was pretty amazed at the sense of restraint that Donaldson also demonstrated in the exciting racing sequences. There's a touch of visual effects involved but nothing that calls attention to itself. He could have gone the route of using a bombastic musical score or the Disney approach of over-the-top one liners, cartoonish villains and crowds of cheering spectators. There's a great deal more suspense and emotional involvement in seeing a handful of people watch an old man race a motorcycle encased in a custom shell that's shaped like a rocket. It feels almost as if you are participating in the experience since we first hear Burt discussing the scientific aspects of his designs and then actual see them executed. The real Munro not only managed to make a new record by racing a forty year old cycle at over 200 mph but he returned several times over the next decade and holds a record that stands to this day. If you feel I'm spoiling it for you by revealing that then just ask yourself, would they have made a movie about Burt if he weren't successful? The conclusion doesn't really matter because often the real excitement lies in the journey. This film is not only an exciting journey, but a compelling and humorous human drama as well as one of the best pieces of escapist entertainment this year.

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