World's Fastest Indian, The (New Zealand, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The World's Fastest Indian is not, as the title might suggest, a National Geographic special. Instead, it's a based-on-a-true-story tale that crosses no fewer than four genres in the space of a little more than two hours. Although some aspects of the movie work better than others, the production as a whole leaves the viewer enveloped in a warm afterglow. And the steady, reassuring presence of Anthony Hopkins, who has disappeared beneath the skin of his character, holds things together during the weaker moments.

Burt Munro (Hopkins) was born in 1899 and died in 1978 at the age of 78. In his native New Zealand, he was (at least for a while) something of a national hero, although he is little known throughout the rest of the world, except in select circles. In 1963, Munro made the long trip from Down Under to Utah to enter his modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle in "Speed Week" at the Bonneville Speedway. It was his first of numerous trips and, in 1967, he set a speed record that stands today. The World's Fastest Indian chronicles Burt's first trip to Bonneville and is based on Donaldson's 1971 made-for-TV documentary, Offerings to the God of Speed.

The World's Fastest Indian starts out as a mismatched buddy film, with Burt the curmudgeon hanging out with a boy named Tom (Aaron Murphy). Nearly everyone in the neighborhood, including Tom's parents, thinks Burt is disreputable and a bad influence, but that doesn't prevent Tom from spending countless hours in the old man's workshop. It has been Burt's lifelong dream to take his beloved motorcycle to the Utah salt flats to find out how fast he can go, and that dream comes a step closer to reality when Burt is able to raise the money. So it's off to Los Angeles, where The World's Fastest Indian becomes a fish-out-of-water movie (think Crocodile Dundee with Hopkins in the title role). After dawdling a while in Hollywood, Burt buys a car and heads northeast for Utah. Cue the road movie. Finally, Donaldson's mixed genre odyssey ends with an inspirational sports segment, in which Burt reaches his goal and must battle rules and regulations to get a chance to realize his dream.

The World's Fastest Indian is at its strongest in the beginning and the end. The middle sags a little. Although the fish-out-of-water sequences are cute, the road movie vignettes are unremarkable. Burt has encounters with a few odd people: an old Indian, an independent woman who offers him a warm bed for a night, and a soldier on leave from Viet Nam. There's a sense that much of the road trip material is padding. The only way it adds to the movie is giving us an opportunity to spend some more time with Burt.

The film is probably too small to garner Hopkins the attention needed for an Oscar nomination. Whether this is one of the best lead male performances of 2005 is open to debate, but there's no question that Hopkins throws himself into the role, doing what all great character actors do: losing himself in the part. From the first frame, we think of Hopkins as Burt, not an actor playing a role. The crowning moment occurs late in the film, when Burt reaches "hallowed ground." Hopkins plays this scene with quiet passion and reverence. After appearing in so many high-profile, commercial motion pictures, Hopkins was anxious to do a project like this. It's a tribute to his versatility as an actor that he can pull it off.

Donaldson has long had a passion for Burt. Despite being well established in the Hollywood community, with more than ten major films on his resume, Donaldson chose to return to his homeland of New Zealand to make The World's Fastest Indian. Although more than half of the film takes place in the United States, no American money was invested in the production. It's worth noting that the movie's impressions of this country during the '60s are almost uniformly positive. Many foreign directors making films about the United States adopt a negative tone (Lars Von Trier comes to mind); that is not true of Donaldson. One could argue that he romanticizes the country, but perhaps that's how Burt saw it when he stumbled ashore unawares in 1963. Most of the people Burt meets are helpful. His "foes," if the term is to be used, are the regulations which he routinely flouts. A free spirit from a small New Zealand town, he is baffled by all of the rules that govern American life.

If you take a step back and look at The World's Fastest Indian, it's about a man's spiritual journey. Burt's life philosophy is easily explained: "You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people live in a lifetime." He doesn't believe in an afterlife and would agree with the sentiment: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Burt's unassuming personality wins people over with ease - both on-screen characters and audience members. The smile on my face at the end of the movie allowed me to forgive its uneven tone and sloppiness with dates. The World's Fastest Indian does what it sets out to do: educates about a mostly unknown historical figure (without doctoring the facts too much), entertains, and uplifts.

World's Fastest Indian, The (New Zealand, 2005)

Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1