In 1971, director Roger Donaldson made a documentary about Burt Munro, the 72-year-old New Zealander who four years earlier had broken the land speed record for motorcycles. Now he's fulfilled a long-time ambition to dramatize Munro's achievement and the result is "The World's Fastest Indian," starring Anthony Hopkins as the supersonic old coot.
When we first see Burt he is living in the small town of Invercargill and is dependably eccentric in everything he does. His weedy, overgrown yard and cinder-block hut are a (deliberate) affront to his neighbor's manicured abodes. His method of watering his lemon trees is, well, all natural.
His passion, aside from aggravating the townspeople, is his 1920 Indian Scout motorbike, which he modifies until he's satisfied it's the fastest thing on two wheels. Except for the wide-eyed boy next door and a sympathetic lady friend, nobody believes Burt when he says he's going to blow away the competition in the annual speed racing competition in the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Just getting to Utah proves to be an odyssey of Homeric proportions. A stormy ocean passage to Los Angeles is followed by a series of on-the-road misadventures involving a doting transvestite motel clerk, a San Fernando Valley car dealer (Paul Rodriguez), an old Indian, and a rambunctious earth mother (Diane Ladd). When he arrives in the salt flats, he discovers he hasn't registered for the event and faces disqualification. (The flats have a bleached white shimmer that is as unearthly as a lunar landscape.)
Throughout it all, Burt is remarkably even-tempered despite the bum ticker that keeps slowing him down. In New Zealand his eccentricities repelled people, but in America he is adopted by almost everyone he meets. His openness to even the most wayward personalities, like that motel clerk, is refreshing. The late '60s was a good time for Burt to arrive in America - as a kind of silvered hippie, he could fit right in.
Hopkins gives what is, for him, a low-key performance. He is often actorish when he's playing villains - ranging from Hannibal Lector to Richard Nixon - but Burt's innate sweetness loosens him up. He obviously cares a great deal about conveying the truth of Burt's experience.
This sometimes puts his performance at odds with Donaldson's direction, which is always on the verge of turning Burt into a full-blown folk hero. At times, in order to balance out Donaldson's hero worship, Hopkins overcompensates by making Burt positively ordinary. There are times when I wished Hopkins had struck a more heroic pose.
But I suppose that's the point of his performance: Burt never thought of himself in that way, so why should we?
Donaldson grew up in Australia before moving, as a teen, to New Zealand and has had a highly uneven career. His 1981 breakthrough movie, "Smash Palace," about an enraged father whose child has been taken from him by his ex-wife, signaled the arrival of a major talent. But his subsequent career after moving to Hollywood has been mostly undistinguished. "The Bounty" was powerful (and starred Hopkins as Captain Bligh), but films like "Cocktail," "The Getaway," "Species," and "Dante's Peak" didn't exactly enhance his reputation.
"The World's Fastest Indian" is clearly Donaldson's attempt to get back to his roots and make a humanely scaled movie. But he has toiled too long in Hollywood, and some of his bad habits have become ingrained. This film would be better if it wasn't so slick. Still, parts of it are enjoyably shaggy, and Hopkins is very endearing. Grade: B+
• Rated PG-13 for brief language, drug use and a sexual reference.
Sex/Nudity: 5 instances of innuendo or implied sex. Violence: 3 mild instances. Profanity: 2 strong expressions, 24 milder. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 5 scenes of drinking and/or smoking, 1 scene of marijuana use.