Directed by Roger Donaldson. USA. 2005.

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I'm not usually drawn to "feel-good" entertainment, not because I like to feel bad but because so often these films are pedestrian, manipulative, and without charm. Anthony Hopkins' performance, however, as Burt Munro in Roger Donaldson's The World's Fastest Indian lifts the film to a different level and, though we may have seen movies in this genre many times before, the result is irresistible. For those who never heard of Burt Munro, he was the eccentric 68-year old New Zealand cyclist who set the land speed record at Bonneville Flats, Utah of 201 mph in 1967, a record that still stands today. The World's Fastest Indian is not only good family entertainment (perish the thought), but has a spiritual message about the power of intention to create support in our life. 

Hopkins portrays Munro as a charming rogue whose greatest asset was his enthusiasm and determination. Munro dreamed about being able to compete in a race to determine the world's fastest motorcycle for twenty-five years and the film chronicles his unrelenting pursuit of that goal. Hopkins turns in one of his best performances in years, captivating us with his Kiwi accent and his sly laugh, the personification of the ordinary man fighting the system for overdo recognition. His instrument of choice was a modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle that he spent his years in Invercargill, New Zealand tinkering with and honing to perfection. The cycle had been scraped together with hinges from a kitchen door and a cork from a whisky bottle and with the tread of its tires carefully sliced off with a knife it hardly looked like it could go around the block much less set a speed record. 

When we first meet Burt, he is an old man who lives alone and regularly comes into conflict with his neighbors for racing his motorcycle engine in the early morning and totally neglecting the condition of his lawn. His best friend is the neighbor's little boy (Aaron Murphy), a captivating redhead, who is fascinated with the ancient machine and loves to talk with Burt about his plans for the big race. Suffering from money problems as well as heart and prostrate trouble, neither Munro nor the old Indian Scout bike seem to be in any shape for an arduous journey, let alone to race for a record. Thanks to the help of a local club and a friendly bank, however, he is able to raise enough to cover most of the trip but has to pay his passage over by working aboard ship as a cook and dishwasher. 

Once in America, Burt meets some "colourful" characters and here the film sags a bit with some well-worn stereotypes. In Hollywood, he is assisted by a transvestite hotel clerk (Chris Williams), a Hispanic used car salesman (Paul Rodriguez), and, along the road, a soldier on leave from Vietnam, a native Indian who has the right cure for his prostate problem, and a widow (Diane Ladd) who has the right cure for his nighttime urges. Donaldson also depicts cops who graciously do not cite him for speeding on a vehicle without license plates. When Burt gets to Bonneville, he must use all the power of his strong intention even to qualify as he failed to pre-register and his cycle does not meet minimum technical standards. Another savior comes to his aid here as an American racer played by Chris Lawford, the lookalike son of actor Peter Lawford, pulls his weight with the officials and Munro is allowed to compete. Even though we know the outcome, the racing sequences at Bonneville are exhilarating. 

While The World's Fastest Indian sounds like a typical formula exercise of the underdog fighting for glory against heavy obstacles, the film is too smart, the people too real, and Hopkins too charming to fall into that trap. The film promotes some very welcome ideas: that the power of our intention can transform our life, that there may be some goodness still left in people, and that old age can be a time of possibility, not a time to throw in the towel. This is a warm, charming, and yes I'll say the "s" word, sentimental film that will not appeal to the action-oriented multiplex crowd or those who find it chic to be cynical but it may appeal to those who simply enjoy well made entertainment that actually delivers on its promise of making us feel good. Kudos to Donaldson, Hopkins, and, of course, to Burt Munro. 


Howard Schumann
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