Having spent years custom-building a classic 1920 Indian motorcycle, New Zealand amateur engineer Burt Munro (Hopkins) makes a round-the-world voyage to Utahs Bonneville Salt Flats, where in 1967 against all odds the eccentric old coot sets the world
This ‘prestige picture’ has ‘Oscar hopeful’ written all over it. A biopic with an inspiring true story, handsomely dressed with period-setting detail, and sporting a grandstanding, highly mannered performance from Anthony Hopkins, The World’s Fastest Indian is definitely Academy-friendly material.
But while supposedly Oscar-worthy films can often be far too worthy in the pejorative sense, New Zealand-based writer-director Roger Donaldson’s film is an appealing labour of love. Donaldson, an Australian who moved to Kiwi-land when he was 20 years old, just two years before Munro set his land-speed record and became a national hero, has imbued his film with a winning streak of optimism. That optimism partly arises from the type of man Munro was, a never-say-die, good-natured kind of fella. Beyond that, however, Donaldson has plotted an unflaggingly positive turn of events — something largely out of fashion in cinema in our cynical modern age — which time and again he uses to cleverly wrong-foot the viewer.
For example, en route to the Bonneville Salt Flats, Munro loses a wheel from the trailer carrying his bike and is stranded on an empty California desert highway. Limping his vehicle to the nearest sign of life, he chances upon the homestead of a lonely widow (played by Diane Ladd) and there fixes up the missing wheel, survives an encounter with a rattlesnake and shacks up with the gorgeous old broad. Out of context, this might all sound unconvincing, but used repeatedly, such plot ploys prove swiftly enough to form an amusing and really quite cheeky conceit, one that works on the cine-literate viewer like a private joke.
It’s a conceit that never would have made it across the starting line, of course, were it not for Hopkins’ sterling central performance. As mannered an impersonation of Munro as his is, Hopkins remains on just about the right side of caricature (apparently Tony had Burt’s surviving relatives bawling during a set visit). From that precise performance to Donaldson’s no-nonsense direction, The World’s Fastest Indian is an unashamedly old-fashioned film, a biopic that places its subject front and centre and tells its story with much gusto and great good humour.
A wonderfully uplifting and charming biopic thats sure to win over all but the most mean-spirited. And the motorbike races really rocket, too.