Throughout his entire life, Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) has been consumed with a thirst for speed. Now elderly and facing critical heart problems, Munro looks to leave his native New Zealand for the United States, to race his beloved, considerably aged, 1920 Indian motorcycle on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in an attempt to break a land speed world record. Taking a lengthy worldwide trip, Munro interacts with many strangers during his journey, using his charisma and mechanical gifts to win over people as he continues on his way to realizing his dream.
“The World’s Fastest Indian” is a crowd pleaser of the highest order. It’s an underdog film in the vein of “Rocky,” yet it constantly surprises and subverts formula with sneaky direction and screenwriting by Roger Donaldson.
Donaldson, who has spent most of his career in the Hollywood trenches churning out mediocrity (“Cocktail,” “Species,” “The Recruit”), has returned to his native New Zealand roots for this marvelous true story, and a newfound sense of filmmaking veracity has followed him. In one of the most accomplished pictures of his career, Donaldson captures the vitality of a far-fetched dream, and the aching realities of old age. His screenplay is simplistic, paralleling the quality of a basic television film a bit too closely, but what makes “Indian” stand out is Donaldson’s efforts to keep the audience awake. There are several moments in the picture where the director is lulling the viewer to a certain expectation, only to push away from cliche with a little twist. The subversion isn’t much, but the effort is appreciated, and it gives “Indian” a small spark of originality, and the glory of restraint.
“Indian” is an episodic film, taking warm cues from “The Straight Story” and “Forrest Gump” as Munro drifts his way across the west, meeting and ingratiating himself to small-town folk along the way. While overall a story about the desire for speed, “Indian” eventually reveals itself to care deeply about human connection, paying great attention to Munro’s sunny Kiwi attitude to challenges, and his endless reservoir of kindness to anyone who crosses his path. The race moments provide the thrills, yet Munro’s gentle nature gives the film a jovial mood, and makes “Indian” a much more emotional experience than expected.
With Anthony Hopkins, you either get his basic, respected acting (“Proof,” “Alexander”), or the inventive, daring route (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Nixon”). “Indian” is the latter, with Hopkins plunging deep into character, making a tremendous effort to mimic Munro’s partial deafness and complex social behavior. It’s stunning work by Hopkins as he does justice to Munro’s complicated emotional framework, witnessed sublimely in a simple scene where Munro shows a friendly neighbor boy his family album. There’s an entire life lived just in the actor’s expressions alone. As the performance grows, Hopkins gets a little wobbly with the accent, but the dedication to realizing Munro’s quirks is astounding, and easily qualifies as the most inspired work Hopkins has done in years.
Utilizing striking sun-drenched race visuals for the finale at Bonneville, Donaldson creates a pulse-quickening portrait of speed and the chaos of chasing velocity. It’s also in the final moments that the filmmaker attempts to avoid yet again the expectations and fears of the audience, and climaxes the picture on sweetly satisfying note. “The World’s Fastest Indian” (an awful title, I know) might not jump out as the obvious moviegoing choice, but with so much heart and charm on display, it’s worth the time.Rating: A-