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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The World’s Fastest Indian (review)

Burt Munro’s Big Adventure

So, this is like Chariots of Fire, right, but set on the subcontinent, and one guy’s a Hindu and his rival is a Muslim? No? Oh, then this is surely about that one Apache warrior who went over to the other side to become a legendary Western Union telegram delivery guy or Pony Express rider in the 19th century? No?
Okay then: what’s it about? Well, there was this old coot from 1960s New Zealand, see, and he has this ancient motorcycle called an Indian Scout that he had modified and tweaked over 40-plus years. And this dude, this Burt Munro, well, he dreamed of taking that funky piece of personalized transport halfway around the world to the salt flats of Utah — where speed records are set and legends made — and pushing himself and his “motorsickle” to the limits. And by golly, he did it, didn’t he, set that world record and astounded everybody and generally had a fine old time for himself.

Hey, don’t blame me for spoiling the movie for you — the damn thing does so itself, right in the title. I don’t know why they do that either, except that apparently the focus-group-loving suits now in charge of Hollywood have determined that audiences want to know beforehand that they’re gonna get a happy, sappy uplifting ending before they invest their time and money in a flick. They don’t want, we’re supposed to believe, any of that downbeat foreign-movie stuff or that indie crap in which nothing happens and everyone is miserable. Honestly, I’m waiting for the release of a movie titled The Butler Did It in which the butler really did do it.

So here we are, with this happy, uplifting, mostly true story of one determined garage tinkerer pursuing his dream of blah blah blah. If you’re looking for the human spirit to triumph, here ya go. Which isn’t to say that Indian is a waste of time (unless you really didn’t want to know whether the butler did it or not). Writer/director Roger Donaldson — who’s made some solid popcorn flicks such as The Recruit and Thirteen Days — injects an authentic warmth and an unaffected wisdom into Burt’s 1962 road trip, as he travels from his home in Invercargill, where he confounds the neighbors with his undomesticated habits as much as he engages their affection with his quirkiness, to Los Angeles to Utah. Of course Burt is quirky — these kinds of movies don’t get made unless there’s quirk involved. Not real quirk, of course — this ain’t no dumb independent movie or anything — but comfortable, nonthreatening old-fart quirk, like how Burt urinates on the trees in his yard every morning, makes ’em grow up good. Man, old guys peeing is high-larious.

But, fair’s fair, Anthony Hopkins (Alexander, The Human Stain) is a pretty engaging old fart at that. In perhaps his heartiest performance yet, he plays Munro as a human iceberg, and by that I don’t mean he’s cold and lonely but that he’s a man with complicated and unexpected depth beneath the deceptively benign colorful old coot the world sees above the surface. And by complicated and unexpected depth I of course mean comfortable, nonthreatening complicated and unexpected depth. Like how he platonically befriends a transvestite in Los Angeles — don’t ask how — and is real nice to her, doesn’t beat her to pulp or anything even though it’s the 1960s and his masculinity might be in jeopardy by being seen in her presence. It’s like he’s polite and human in his interactions with people, even transvestites and neighbors who yell at him for peeing on the lawn every morning, and you can hardly call acting like a civilized person a real stretch when it comes to being all complicated and unexpectedly deep, not really.

Still, Burt is a man for whom the love of his machine and the speed it can achieve is but a symptom of his love of life and of being nice to people — he’s practically Forrest Gump, actually, Forrest Gump on a motorsickle. I guess there’s worse things to be.


Yes, there was originally a much shorter review of this film here at FlickFilosopher.com, which I wrote back in December for one of the outlets that runs my stuff; then I was asked to write a full-length review for another. The new, longer review is above — here’s the old, short one. My opinion of the film did not change — the difference in tone between the two reviews is the difference between one outlet that doesn’t mind snark and another that wants more straightforward writing.

The World’s Fastest Indian
The title may evoke images of the bane of 19th-century Western Cavalry or, perhaps, the loneliness of a long-distance runner from the subcontinent, but the Indian here is a motorcycle, a 1920 Scout modified and tweaked over 40-plus years by New Zealander Burt Munro. And this is the mostly true story of how one determined garage tinkerer pursued his dream of taking that funky piece of personalized transport halfway around the world to the salt flats of Utah — where speed records are set and legends made — and pushing himself and his “motorsickle” to the limits. Oh, the human spirit will triumph, naturally, but writer/director Roger Donaldson injects an authentic warmth and an unaffected wisdom into Burt’s 1962 road trip, as he travels from his home in Invercargill — where he confounds the neighbors with his undomesticated habits as much as he engages their affection with his quirkiness — to Los Angeles to Utah. In perhaps his heartiest performance yet, Anthony Hopkins plays Munro as a human iceberg, with complicated and unexpected depth beneath the deceptively benign colorful old coot the world sees above the surface. He’s a man for whom the love of his machine and the speed it can achieve is but a symptom of his love of life, and while the “motorsickle” racing is dynamic and exciting, the film really comes to life when Burt is making friends with all the other eccentric oddballs, young and old, he meets along the way.–MAJ, 12.07.05


MPAA: rated PG-13 for brief language, drug use and a sexual reference

viewed at home on a small screen

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