A schmaltzy, standard road movie, Roger Donaldson’s The World’s Fastest Indian nonetheless manages to be palatable—despite its numerous flaws—for two reasons: Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro, and a warm heart at its core. As such, The World’s Fastest Indian is impossible to hate, whether it’s striding over oft-trod ground, or spouting genre clichés that Hopkins must have been ashamed to read aloud. Set initially in New Zealand before making its way to Utah, The World’s Fastest Indian is the story of Munro, a kind-hearted old cod whose life is consumed by a dream of setting a speed record on his motorbike. And that bike is his joy: a 1920’s “Indian,” which was an archaic model by the time Bonneville rolled around in 1967. Despite the deck being stacked against him—his age, his creaky ride, etc—Burt’s stubborn determination allowed him to zoom past 200 MPH and into history. Along the way, he meets all sorts of odd ducks: transsexuals, frisky 50-something women, and a suave biker from Santa Fe with a heart of gold. That every single person in the movie seems to exist only to cheer Burt on is ludicrous, of course, but there’s something touching about Donaldson’s idealistic viewpoint, and the never-ending stream of “thattaboy, Burt!” or “come on, for Burt’s sake” that seem to pop up every three minutes. And Hopkins, whose career has been on a bit of a precipice of late (Alexander, The Human Stain, etc), pumps everything he has into Munro. His accent is convincing, and his smile and wearied resolve go a long way in keeping this mostly porous picture from completely sinking into the cheesy abyss.
I knew absolutely nothing about The World’s Fastest Indian before popping my screener into the DVD player, and as such was surprised to find, upon the credits rolling, that it was based on a true story. However, the emotional honesty that’s prevalent throughout the picture makes it easy to buy into in retrospect, and I’d assume the same would be true if you did know going in. Let’s face it: The World’s Fastest Indian is on the wrong side of the “thoroughly mediocre” barometer cinematically.. Donaldson’s ham-fisted direction leads to multiple soppy, cringe-inducing moments (Burt talking about his brother Ernie takes the cake), and the photography is dullsville: every road movie is shot the same way. The score is beyond annoying. The structure of Burt’s meetings and relationships are nonsensical, aside from his cute rapport with little Tom, his next-door neighbor in New Zealand who admires him, and takes over Burt’s curious custom of urinating on his lemon tree every morning when Burt heads off to America. And despite it all, The World’s Fastest Indian manages to be passable entertainment, and might even strike a chord in your weepie detector: hell, I even got a bit misty at the end, in that, “goodness, how am I tearing up watching this sap!” kind of way. It’s difficult to recommend it in good faith, but there are worse fates out there than spending two hours of your life enjoying Sir Anthony Hopkins try to warm your soul.