Judge Jonathan Weiss can't drive 55.
"If you don't follow through on your dreams you might as well be a vegetable."—Burt Munro
The World's Fastest Indian is one part biography, one part road trip or odyssey, and one part fish out of water. Based on a true story, or one hell of a true story if you believe the packaging, The World's Fastest Indian is really the story about two dreams—the first belongs to Burt Munro, the hero of the piece, while the second belongs to Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, Cocktail, Thirteen Days, and The Recruit), the writer/director who was first introduced to Burt in the early 70's when he filmed a short documentary entitled Offerings to the God of Speed (which has graciously been included as an extra). It has taken Roger Donaldson a long time to get the story of Burt Munro onto the screen—now let's see if it was worth the wait.
Facts of the Case
Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) always dreamed of going fast. He would spend much of his time tinkering with his prized 1920's Indian Motorcycle; adapting it, cajoling it, and even willing it far past its intended speed limit of 50 m/p/h. Finally, at 68 years of age, Burt Munro embarked on the adventure of his life. Leaving his small village of Invercargill, New Zealand, Burt headed halfway across the globe to the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah—where he was determined to clock his bike and test his ingenuity against the best in the world. But more importantly, he was going to live his dream and ride The World's Fastest Indian.
Imagine an absent minded professor type—only instead of inventing gelatinous goop that bounces like mad, or fitting a time machine into a DeLorean—he's obsessed with speed. That's Burt Munro you're picturing in your head right now. Burt lives in a shed in the little town of Invercargill in New Zealand. He's the town eccentric and though it's clear that he's regarded with some affection, it's also pretty obvious that he gets on people's nerves; especially those of his next-door neighbours. Every morning he takes a leak on a lemon tree in his yard. He hasn't cut his lawn in what could be years. And worst of all, he wakes up insanely early and starts tinkering with his 1920 Indian Motorcycle—usually beginning by revving it up to decibel levels that can wake the dead. The one true friend he seems to have, as most absent minded professor types do, is the young son of his fed up neighbours; and through young Tom we get to hear Burt's philosophies, and his dreams.
The dream in question is to make his way to America to clock his motorbike's speed at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah—and getting there is the first half of the movie. After discovering that he has angina, Burt becomes more determined than ever to make the trip. Mortgaging the land on which his shed stands gives Burt the money he needs—but just barely. He's going to need to be incredibly frugal if he's to make it. He's also going to need a little kindness and a lot of help along the way.
Don't worry; he gets there.
This is a biography after all, and Burt Munro's record-breaking visit to Bonneville in 1967 is a well-documented fact. The trick here, as in all stories where the audience already knows the ending, is to make the hero character so engaging that it doesn't matter that we know what happened because we'll root for them no matter what—and if you're going to root for anybody you could do a lot worse than choose Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs, Nixon, The Mask of Zorro, and Remains of the Day) to play your protagonist. Mr. Hopkins plays Burt Munro as a driven, befuddled, and stubborn old man—which is to say, quite human. What's equally nice is that his desires are shown to be quite human too. Being 68 does not mean you're not interested in a little wink wink nudge nudge every now and then but few movies dare to even hint at it. The World's Fastest Indian on the other hand has two separate scenes that show just how appealing to women a rascally old speed freak can be.
The second thing a movie based on true events needs to do is build just enough tension in certain scenes so that even though you might know the outcome, you still experience a few nail-biting moments. And in that regard, The World's Fastest Indian comes through again. The use of music is wonderful in that it helps build just the right amount of tension during the motorcycle scenes whether Burt is taking on a group of Kiwi bikers or going for the record at Bonneville. Storytelling is also the key—when certain scenes don't work out the way you'd expect, the tension for the next event naturally builds to the point where it doesn't matter if it's already in the history books; you still feel uncertain about the outcome.
One area where The World's Fastest Indian truly surprises is in an area that kind of sneaks up on you. After watching Burt's exploits in New Zealand, and then in the States, you come to realize that Burt gets to meet some of the nicest and most encouraging people in the world. No really, they're all so nice and encouraging. In New Zealand, the young boy Tom is nice and encouraging. Fran, Burt's female companion, is nice and encouraging. Heck, even a band of motorcycle ruffians becomes nice and encouraging when it's time for Burt to set off. Lucky for Burt that for the most part the people in America follow suit. The only guy in America who comes off as a complete and utter jerk is the taxi driver who takes Burt from the loading docks to the motel. Once he arrives, however, he meets Tina Washington (Chris Williams, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), the nice and encouraging cross-dressing motel clerk who takes Burt under her wing. Then comes Fernando (Paul Rodriguez, Rat Race), a nice and encouraging used car salesman who not only sells Burt the car that will take him to the Salt Flats but also lets him use the lot's workshop to put together a makeshift trailer so that he can hitch his Indian to the back. Don't forget the nice and encouraging Ada (Diane Ladd, Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More) who gives Burt the metal and blowtorch he needs to fix his trailer and a bed for the night (with the kind of company to keep it warm). And of course there's the nice and encouraging Jim (Christopher Lawford, Terminator 3—Rise of the Machines, who has an uncanny resemblance to dad, Peter), a Bonneville veteran with enough pull to get Burt his run. As you can see the list of nice and encouraging people is nearly endless—oh, and there's more, a lot more—including a nice and encouraging Native American who gives Burt a pouch of ground up dog balls for his prostate—but the less said about that, the better.
But then what do you expect from a feel good film like The World's Greatest Indian? Guys should like it because it's about a man and his motorcycle. Women should like it because that man is a charming old rogue. In fact, unless you're easily offended by a man urinating against a lemon tree or seeing a couple of octogenarians together in bed, then The World Fastest Indian should be fun for the whole family.
The extras are also pretty satisfying. As mentioned above, a really nice inclusion on this disc is Roger Donaldson's original documentary about Burt Munro called Offerings to the God of Speed. Not only is it a treat to watch real footage of Burt perched atop his beloved Indian, but it also gives you the reference you need to really appreciate Anthony Hopkins' excellent performance. The commentary by Richard Donaldson is also enjoyable. He's got a pleasant voice, a charming demeanor, and he's got wall to wall stories including lots of little tidbits about the real Burt Munro as well as his own experiences in America and how they found their way into the film. The making of featurette is nicely made but, as is the norm, contains repetitive information from the commentary. The weirdest extra can only be explained as a tourist travelogue of Southland—the section of New Zealand Burt Munro called home. It looks to be an incredibly beautiful place but—huh??? Maybe it was included as a big thank you to Invercargill for being so sweet and encouraging during the filming.
Don't get the wrong idea; this isn't a sugary sweet movie. Really, it isn't. It's life affirming. Burt Munro's story is one of hope—it teaches you that it's never too late to live your dream—and in this day and age when there never seems to be enough time to do anything but work and sleep, that's not such a bad message to have.
Something needs to be said and this is as good a place as any to say it: The World's Fastest Indian has an incredibly ugly DVD cover. It looks like something you'd find in one of those three for five dollar discount barrels you see at big box stores full of unknown Z-grade flicks about blood sucking vampire monkeys. Not that there's anything wrong with Z-grade flicks about blood sucking monkeys. It's just that this deserved better.
The World's Fastest Indian is free to go…and go…and go man go!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
• Bonus Film: "Offerings to the God of Speed" (1971)
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