When Tom Cruise quipped, “I feel the need – the need for speed!” in the movie Top Gun, the line instantly became a classic. That’s because we all know it’s true; there are people out there for whom speed is a necessity. The World’s Fastest Indian is based on the true story of Burt Munro, who was one of those people who absolutely needed to go fast. Munro (Anthony Hopkins) spends countless hours in his New Zealand garage tinkering with his beloved 1920 Indian motorcycle. (The Indian is unusual in that it puts the rider in a leaning-forward position.) Frequently helping him is a little neighbor boy, whose parents don’t wholly approve of their son hanging around the quasi-obsessive old man.
Burt has long been saving money so that he can travel to America. He knows that Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats are the place to be if you want to see how fast your machine can go. They are perfectly flat and stretch on for several miles. Every year, a Speed Week event is held where participants can have their vehicles officially timed. Burt is one of those guys who are kind of crotchety, but in a way that makes people surprisingly affectionate toward him. The locals help raise the cash for him to get to America. Once there, he battles a number of obstacles in his path to Utah, including losing a wheel on the trailer that carries his Indian. Fortunately, Burt is able to meet kindly strangers who offer assistance.
Naturally, he makes it to Bonneville in time for Speed Week, only to discover that the event’s organizers have serious doubts about a 67 year-old man riding a 40 year-old motorcycle at top speed. Burt’s bike also has many self-modifications that don’t pass regulation. Since this is based on a true story, you can no doubt safely assume that Burt Munro accomplished something noteworthy at Bonneville; otherwise, why would they make a movie about him? If you don’t want to know what happened, skip ahead now. Despite being unconventional, Burt’s modifications to his bike are effective, which allows him to set a new land speed record, as he tops 200MPH on the Indian.
One of the best things about The World’s Fastest Indian is the way it creates a sense of speed. Director Roger Donaldson (Thirteen Days, No Way Out) uses special effects to give us racing shots from the Indian’s point of view. We can see the salt flats whizzing by at rocket speed. This goes a long way toward helping us understand why this is such an obsession for Burt.
Although the speed part is crucial to the story, this is really a character study more than anything. Early scenes show us how Burt neglects other things because he’s so focused on his bike. (The neighbors implore him unsuccessfully to mow his lawn, for example.) He has some peculiar quirks too, such as urinating on his lemon tree every morning. Burt also has a singular drive. Figuring he only has a few years (at best) to live, he decides that nothing will deter him from his goal. Not even his heart problem, which requires consuming nitroglycerine pills, gets in his way.
Anthony Hopkins is really fantastic in this role. Interestingly, I think there is some comparison between the actor’s portrayal of Burt Munro and his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. The characters have nothing in common, but in both roles Hopkins invents a distinct verbal cadence and unique set of physical mannerisms. He disappears into both roles; you lose sight of the fact that you’re watching Anthony Hopkins and begin accepting the character as real.
Other actors pop up in small scenes as people Burt meets along the way. Diane Ladd makes an appearance as a woman who helps fix the broken trailer, Chris Williams achieves sweetness as a transvestite motel clerk whom Burt befriends, and Christopher Lawford is effective as a veteran speed freak who advocates for Burt during the event.
Not everything in The World’s Fastest Indian quite works. When Burt first arrives in America, we get a series of familiar fish out of water scenes that show his naivety (Burt doesn’t recognize a hooker, thinks cab fare is too high, and struggles with the “magic fingers” on a motel bed). I also thought that some of his side encounters with other characters were too brief; he seems to get what he wants out of people, including a cop, without much effort.
Those are fairly minor flaws considering that The World’s Fastest Indian is, for the most part, exceptionally entertaining. Anthony Hopkins gives a performance that stands among his best, and the film has a quiet, straightforward style of storytelling that appealed to me. Burt Munro is not a household name, but his accomplishment is significant. He personified the idea that the little man with a dream can find success so long as he never gives up.
( out of four)
The World's Fastest Indian is rated PG-13 for brief language, drug use and a sexual reference. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.
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