BY KHALILAH WALTERS
The World’s Fastest Indian has quite a handicap to overcome if it is not to be just the sort of corny triumph of the will shtick that demeans moviegoers’ intelligence. A retiree with modest means and a heart condition follows his dream to take his similarly ancient motorbike all the way from Invercargill, his small New Zealand hometown, to Utah for Speed Week. With age, health, and finances already working against him, he must also contend with unexpected and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, which he meets alternately with insouciance, daring and determination.
The World’s Fastest Indian is a biographical drama written and directed by Roger Donaldson, of Thirteen Days and Species. The film chronicles the tireless, decades-long effort of New Zealand senior citizen speed racer Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) to shatter the land-speed world record at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in his meticulously souped-up 1920 Indian motorcycle – or, as the Kiwis in the film pronounce it, motor-sickle. The World’s Fastest Indian is a feel-good triumph-against-the-odds feature that nevertheless manages a coup in avoiding characterization as an intolerably mawkish cheese-fest. Instead, to the unjaded eye, the film is a cleanly edited, watchable, uplifting portrait of resourcefulness, grit, and singularity of purpose, made more interesting by a generous dollop of charm and a one-off performance from Hopkins that sparkles and doesn’t go flat.
Part of what makes the film work is that the characterization of Munro, for all his foibles, may be sweet but is not saccharine. And for all his troubles, he is not turned into too pitiable a character. Rough and ready Munro, as he prepares for a date, does his nails with an electrical tool that the less insane reserve for heavy metal, sleeps in a tool shed, makes offerings to the gods of speed, and religiously pees on his lemon tree. Hopkins plays the role of mischievous, overgrown schoolboy to the hilt. Quirky does not begin to describe him. Nutty is a bit more apt, and the film exploits Munro’s quirks to elevate him to near-mythic status.
The World’s Fastest Indian is not the world’s fastest movie, and its at times languid pace may frustrate speed demons expecting Hopkins-does-NASCAR fare. The universal story of Munro’s quest to live the dream is given depth and color by his experiences in the US. In a gaggle of characters that themselves struggle for dimension – a foreign-born taxi driver, a transvestite, a used car salesman, a cowboy, a group of midday barflies – the only character that does not obviously brandish a “heart of gold” is the hooker. Munro’s road trip across the US portrays an America so mercilessly caricatured that all pretenses to this outfit being about anything but Burt Munro are summarily jettisoned. Yet, one-dimensional as they are, the characters provide an effective foil for Hopkins to demonstrate just how adorable and cool of an “old coot” Munro is. Indeed, as the affable sexagenarian hits the road, romancing women and making friends, the film’s determinedly good-natured outlook lacks the kind of tension that could have saved it from its adulatory excesses.
Complications arise with each new hurdle Munro faces, but although the film teases the audience with the prospects of real conflict, The World’s Fastest Indian never fails to give a pat reassurance that Munro will manage. In the process, the film imitates Munro in making it look all too easy. Everybody is rooting for Munro; from his positively beatific little helper back in New Zealand to total strangers he just happened to have met on the way to demonstrating that old guys in old bikes can set land speed records. We’re not entirely sure why. Thus, The World’s Fastest Indian is rendered too cute for its own good, and is perhaps forgettable as far as the annals of film go. But like a good car race, it aims to be a sure crowd-pleaser, and for the most part gets it right.