Pic tells the tale of a funny old coot who sets out to become the world's fastest motorcyclist at an age when most of his contemporaries are settling into rocking chairs. Sometimes shticky biopic overcomes its cornball conventionality to become a genial entertainment, thanks to Anthony Hopkins' exceptionally engaging perf.
Like a geriatric “Rocky” on wheels, “The World’s Fastest Indian” tells the tale of a funny old coot who sets out to become the world’s fastest motorcyclist at an age when most of his contemporaries are settling into rocking chairs. Sometimes shticky biopic overcomes its cornball conventionality to become a genial entertainment, thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ exceptionally engaging perf. New Zealand production, picked up by Magnolia Pictures for U.S. distribution at the start of the Toronto fest, has little to offer younger audiences, but would be an oldsters’ delight if they could be induced to give it a look.
In 1971, Kiwi-Aussie director Roger Donaldson made a documentary, “Offerings to the God of Speed,” about Burt Munro, a then-72-year-old New Zealander who a few years earlier had taken his self-modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle across the Pacific to run it on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats and set a world’s record in the process.
Helmer’s abiding love for his subject comes through loud and clear in this dramatized retelling, which he wrote himself and has been trying to make for years. Dramatic approach is straightforward and, at moments, cringingly hokey. But the heart of the matter, the whimsically resilient personality of its subject, rings so true as to prevail over the script’s ordinariness and silly indulgences.
There’s reason to fear the worst at the outset, as Burt is presented as the local loon in his small-town Invercargill neighborhood, a kook who lives in a cinderblock hut, pees on his lemon tree and tinkers endlessly with his ancient motorbike.
An adoring little boy is provided to give Burt a sounding board, as is an attractive lady friend for moral support and an unexpected roll in the hay. So lost in his own little world is Burt that it’s hard for anyone (viewers included) to believe this robust-looking fellow with a heart condition could ever turn his Bonneville dream into reality.
But with his own meager savings and modest contributions, Burt lines up ocean passage on a rusty bucket and winds up in Los Angeles. But no matter how contrived his first American friendship — with a transvestite motel clerk — may be, it’s the start of a pattern that ends up the film’s keynote: Burt is so open to life and its multitudinous possibilities that all manner of people immediately spark to him and help him out.
Even this may seem simplistic on paper, but by this time Hopkins has won over the viewer as well with a disarming perf marked by modesty and the curious little laugh with which he inflects many of his more important lines.
Hopkins has become most celebrated for portraying commanding, often evil men (he was a revisionist Captain Bligh in his first teaming with Donaldson 21 years ago in “The Bounty”), but here, for once, he’s relaxed, humorous and enormously likable in an unpredictable turn that entirely avoids lovable-old-codger cliches.
Burt’s American odyssey includes quick, convenient and entirely winning friendships with a San Fernando Valley car dealer (Paul Rodriguez), an old Indian who puts him up for a night and a high-spirited desert widow (Diane Ladd) who does the same — only in her own bed.
Arriving at Bonneville, which is captured in all its blinding beauty by lenser David Gribble, Burt needs all the help he can get, as he has not pre-registered. He’s aided by a Yank driver (Chris Lawford) in convincing authorities to let him run.
Climactic race, in which Burt sets a record of 201 mph across the vast white expanse of packed salt, is excitingly covered.
The film offers no complexities, details about Burt’s earlier life and family or even hints about why his old bike is so much faster than new models. Button-pushing score emphasizes the most obvious emotional notes of the story. Despite it all, however, pic leaves a sweet, rather than sticky, taste.