Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) has had two goals in his long life: to perfect his 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle and to take it from his native New Zealand all the way to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in order to break speed records with “The World’s Fastest Indian.”
It is 1967 in a far southern corner of Kiwi Land and Burt tirelessly works on his vintage, much modified Indian Scout. He has rebuilt the machine many times over in pursuit of making it the fastest possible, even casting his own pistons to get the best performance achievable. He finally gets the opportunity to live his dream and ships himself and his beloved bike to where the fastest people in the world flock to – Bonneville, better known to the racers as The Flats.
Burt, with his meager savings and the help of the townsfolk, books work on a tramp steamer to pay for his and the motorcycle’s passage to America. Once here, he is treated with all manner of kindnesses of strangers including a transvestite motel clerk (Chris Williams) who takes a liking to the charming, hard of hearing Burt; a used car salesman (Paul Rodriguez) who trades bits and pieces to Burt in exchange for his master mechanic skills; a lusty lady (Diane Ladd) who happily beds likable Burt; and, among many others, speed buster Jim Moffett (Christopher Lawford) who uses his influence with the Bonneville officials to get them to turn a blind eye to the obvious safety flaws in Burt’s bike’s design and condition.
The World’s Fastest Indian” is the kind inspiration, you-go-girl! kind of movie that appeals to an older demographic, much like David Lynch’s thoughtful journey film, “The Straight Story” (the last hurrah for veteran character actor Richard Farnsworth). Here, instead of reuniting with a long lost brother, Burt is out to prove something to himself - that his is the fastest Indian motorcycle in the world. The first half of the story is about his journey and the tribulations in just getting to The Flats, while the second half shows Burt refused to be allowed to register for his speed run – no one told him he had to apply months before. But his fellow speed lovers come to his aid and help to make his dream come true. It’s all a typical fulfill-your-dreams biopic but the top-notch credentials of star Hopkins and director Donaldson allow it to soundly build to its inspirational and exciting finale.
Anthony Hopkins is on my long list of favored best actors this year. His is a quieter type of role that builds on his character’s quirks and mannerisms – every time someone says something to him he automatically answers with “What?” because he happens to, be like many of us, a bit deaf – that make Burt, Burt. It is Hopkins’s movie and the rest of the supporting cast is there to, well, support him. Diane Ladd’s sexy little interlude with Burt is trite but rounds out the man, letting you get to know him just a little bit better.
Burt is such an affable, determined man that you believe that others would cut him some slack, even the speedway officials. The speed runs that he is finally able to make (setting records that stand today) are the product of the kindness and support of others. They are excitingly staged with cinematographer David Gribble using The Flats to good affect when capturing Burt’s record-breaking runs.
The World’s Fastest Indian” is a nostalgic kind of biopic that leaves you with the pleasant feeling that you have seen one man’s dream come true. Burt is a local hero among the racers, respected for his chutzpah. He must face the ordeal of his long journey, angina, the limitations of his machine and bureaucratic obstacles and still attain the record-breaking speed on his beloved Indian - over 200 mph. I give it a B-.Laura:
Senior New Zealander Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins, "The Human Stain," "Proof") lives in a shed and spends his time fussing over a vintage 1920's Scout motorcycle. Crafting his own parts, Burt keeps modifying his machine in hopes of fulfilling his dream of traveling to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats during Speed Week and proving he has created "The World's Fastest Indian."
Writer/director Roger Donaldson ("The Bounty," "Thirteen Days") returned to his adopted land to tell this true life 'cute codger' tale of a man on a mission and Hopkins clearly digs the material, but while it's a solid effort that covers many miles, it feels too small for the big screen.
Burt lives a simple, obsessive life, annoying his neighbors with his unkempt lawn but charming their son, Tom (Aaron Murphy, "Rain," "Boogeyman"), with his amateur mechanics. He's feted by his bike club, but disparaged by local bikers and absolutely no one but Tom believes he can beat a speed record. But new girlfriend Fran (Annie Whittle) comes up with a plan to finance his trip, so Burt packs up his bike and trades his labor for passage to the States. L.A. proves a rude awakening with its rude cab drivers and high rates, but Burt's charm goes a long way and initially wary strangers become fostering friends.
Every stop along the way brings with it a new character. The L.A. motel he's dropped off has a warm-hearted night clerk, Tina (Chris Williams, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story"), who happens to be a drag queen who develops a bit of a crush on the older Burt ('I thought there was something a little odd about you, but you're still a sweetheart,' Burt says when Tina tells him she's 'not a girl'). Fernando (Paul Rodriguez, "Baadasssss!," "A Cinderella Story") is the used car salesman who not only sells a car to Burt for $150 less than his $400 asking price, but stays with him all night as he uses the shop's garage to work on it. Native American Jake (Saginaw Grant, "Grey Owl," "Dreamer") stops to help Burt with a busted trailer and Ada's (Diane Ladd, "Wild at Heart," "28 Days") junkyard ends up leading to the lonely widowed woman's bed. Even Burt's lectures against smoking and drinking don't turn people off, most amazingly when he stops at a roadside tavern for a cup of tea. From a land with such a low population density, Burt's ability to accept all manner of people in America's melting pot is one of his hugest character assets.
When he finally arrives at the Flats, he makes the acquaintance of land speed record holder Jim Moffet (Christopher Lawford, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"), who comes to his aid when it's discovered that Burt cannot race but he didn't know he had to pre-register. Burt's bike, with its homegrown gadgets, and Burt himself, with his heart condition, are then deemed unfit, but his supporters continue to rally and officials agree to give him a trial run. He surprises them all, but that's nothing - they don't realize he couldn't get his bike out of second gear.
"The World's Fastest Indian" is one of those films where twinkling seniors accomplish the unexpected (see "The Straight Story," "A Trip to Bountiful"), except, of course, that Munro really did break a land speed record at the age of 67 and his record for motorcycles under 1,000 CCs still stands. Hopkins, who has professed a fondness for tooling around the American West in an old car himself, makes Munro a sweetheart who perseveres through his friends lack of faith (he wins over that biker gang, though, who see him off with a gift of beer money) and seems to trust in God to provide. He shows the signs of an aging body, but the physicality to lie prone on his old Scout and go for broke and his shufflings about his workshop shed have the feel of long-term habit crossed with a bit of Macbeth ('36 Chevy pistons go into his molten metal mix like eye of newt into a witch's brew).
Donaldson gives the film a folksy feel, from his opening shot of Burt's 'offerings to the God of Speed,' a shelf full of failed parts, to J. Peter Robinson's ("15 Minutes") sentimental score. He gets a beautiful moving shot of Burt racing along a New Zealand beach (cinematography by David Gribble, "Chill Factor"), that is more intense than anything we see on the Flats themselves. In fact, Donaldson allows his film to go on too long - there is an entire segment about using a lead brick for ballast that could have been excised entirely - and he undercuts his climax with an awkward audience reminder of just what Burt's up against after demonstrating just that for the past several scenes.
"The World's Fastest Indian" is a formulaic film with a pleasantly eccentric coot at its center. While it doesn't cover any new ground as it travels 7,000 miles, Hopkins proves a most charming traveling companion.
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