The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The World's Fastest Indian

Originally published 12/9/05
Full review behind the jump

The World’s Fastest Indian

: Roger Donaldson
: Roger Donaldson
: Roger Donaldson, Gary Hannam
: Anthony Hopkins, Diane Ladd, Christopher Lawford, Chris Williams, Paul Rodriguez, Aaron Murphy, Annie Whittle

It’s a potent myth – the thought that in any frontier of human endeavor, there’s the chance some funny little man with the right blend of obsession and non-traditional thinking will whang something together in his shed that can stand with or even surpass the shiny gewgaws produced with unlimited resources. Sometimes the funny little men work in pairs, like the Wright Brothers or the founders of Apple Computers, while some, like Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), work alone.

The World’s Fastest Indian
is the story of Burt Munro, whose shed is in the little village of Invercargill in New Zealand in the 60’s, and the thing he whangs together is a custom 1920 Indian motorcycle that makes history. Scraping together every cent he can manage, Burt undertakes a peculiar odyssey with his bike, toting it halfway around the world to compete in “Speed Week” – an annual event in which racers and thrill-seekers converge on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (where all land-speed records are set) to test their machines. And with the virtuoso Hopkins fleshing out the character who fulfills this very potent myth, this passion project for writer/director Roger Donaldson leaves you with a delicious and warm feeling.

Donaldson actually met Burt (he doesn’t go by “Mr. Munro”) in the 70’s while making a television documentary about him, this feature version has gestated a long time. It’s a stroke of luck that it took long enough for Hopkins to age into the role, because he embodies it thoroughly – Burt is a classic eccentric; determined, distracted, snorting and opinionated. Also horny as all get out, he does not believe in wasting functional machinery.

He has heart problems, prostate problems and can’t see very well. He’s a fitting rider for this ramshackle device of his – in one very funny scene the judges for Speed Week inspect his bike for safety and find one horror after another. From the cracked tires to the cork holding the gas tank shut, they think the only reason Burt won’t be killed on this Indian is that the little deathtrap probably won’t even run.

Movies are said to generally have three acts – The World’s Fastest Indian is more like three separate movies. In the first, Burt works in his shed, annoys his neighbors and becomes the apple of a little boy’s (Aaron Murphy) eye. Lining his wall is a shelf of burnt and cracked pistons “sacrificed to the God of speed”. Burt’s relationship with this bike has outlasted relatives, loved ones and his own physical prime. He’s believed in it so long that when he grumbles his philosophy to the little boy – about how you feel more alive in five minutes on that bike than a lifetime of safety – he stumbles over the words as if trying to recite them by rote, but finding them scattered dusty in some corner of his memory.

In the second, Burt journeys to America then crosses the West, meeting a number of charming strangers along the way. He earns his passage by volunteering as cook on a cargo freighter. He can’t cook, but by the end of the trip he’s lecturing the sailors about their overuse of condiments. Then, in the strange land of Los Angeles, he tries to procure means to tow his bike to Utah and not get taken for every bill in his wallet in the process. He gets a lot of help from motel manager “Tina” (Chris Williams), whom he doesn’t realize for a day or so is not actually a woman (that bad eyesight again). No matter to him, he says she’s still a sweetheart.

I saw this movie the same week as Breakfast on Pluto, and it strikes me how unexpectedly similar the two stories are. Both are about individuals who overpower peoples’ cynicism and win them over simply by indomitably being their own weird selves. Watch how Burt is caught by a policeman testing his bike on a state highway, proudly admits to the velocity he reached, and escapes the ticket anyway without ever seeming to try to.

The third movie addresses what happens when he reaches Utah, and if you look carefully you’ll see this Burt Munro is a different animal from the one in that New Zealand chapter. He’s more vigorous, more self-assured, the desert air and the promise of speed have blown cobwebs out of his brain. The chance that he will not live through this experience to see home again is dangerously real – he faces this fully and decides that, yes, it is important enough.

Though made through the mechanisms of independent film, The World’s Fastest Indian is an old-fashioned inspirational, the sort of thing that used to be Hollywood stock-in-trade. It’s made in an old-fashioned style, and is sometimes too dependent on manipulative poignancy or a contrived moment – a showdown with leather-jacket-clad Kiwi bikers plays almost like self-parody but pays off nicely. But the damned thing about Burt, I should say the damned thing about Anthony Hopkins’ work as Burt (a highlight in his already brilliant career), is that it will win you over, flaws be damned. You want to believe in his Indian’s destiny, because life is much more fun with these myths borne out.


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