The World's Fastest Indian Movie Review

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"You live more in five minutes on a bike... than some people live in their lifetime," says the plucky, gravel-voiced Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), early on in writer-director Roger Donaldson's The World's Fastest Indian. That line and the scene containing it eloquently sum up Munro's fearless devotion to his lifelong love: speed racing, specifically on his re-conditioned 1920s-era Indian motorcycle. World's Fastest is part biopic, part road movie, part triumph of the sprit moviemaking, but, underneath all that, it's a tribute to the aging Munro, whose grit and tenacity elevated him for small-time obscurity to the status of motorcycling legend--the holder of several land speed records.

Donaldson's movie focuses on Munro's 1967 odyssey from his remote New Zealand town to his record-setting speed trials in Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Though plagued by a heart ailment, Munro soldiers on, modifying his ancient Indian motorcycle using nothing more than junkyard parts and his try-anything chutzpah. Backed by the goodwill of his townsfolk, Munro ships off to Los Angeles where he commences his cross-country trek towards Utah and the record books.

World's Fastest is, in many ways, thoroughly conventional, but it's executed with such conviction and love for its subject matter that it disarms the viewer completely. Most contemporary movies are so dramatically overreaching, their appeal to our sympathies so strained, that they end up putting us in a defensive posture; we find ourselves continually on guard against their assaults on our intelligence. Donaldson's movie puts no such artificial pressures on its drama and, in effect, makes no undue demands of the viewer. His script never overplays the conflicts in Munro's life: His heart condition, for instance, or the resistance he meets in Bonneville, or his scant resources never inundate the narrative the way they might in a standard-issue Hollywood screenplay. These conflicts do have a place in Munro's life, but Donaldson, to his credit, keeps them at a low simmer.

Yet that most endearing aspect of the script also points to its most glaring weakness. Munro is a hard-nosed scrapper, no doubt, but, at no point, does Donaldson's script isolate and develop a deeper theme to drive the story's dramatic engine -- apart from the rather generic theme of courage conquering fear. The narrative has a pleasant rhythm following the beat-by-beat of Munro overcoming one obstacle after another on his way to the speed trials. But those beats often feel pat and easy -- especially the saccharine sequences of Munro's encounters with a Hollywood transvestite (Chris Williams), with a Latino used-car dealer (Paul Rodriguez) then, later, with a Native American (Saginaw Grant) and a lonely homesteader (Diane Ladd). These simply forward Munro's American experience, failing to evolve his character and to enrich our understanding of him.

While World's Fastest's script may not reach any profound heights, what keeps us rooted to the movie (and rooting for Munro) are its motorcycle sequences and Hopkins' performance. Together with cinematographer David Gribble and editor John Gilbert, Donaldson expertly crafts moments of pure open-road exhilaration. Whenever Munro takes off on his bike, the movie achieves a heart-stirring virtuosity on par with the sound barrier-breaking sequences in Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff and the hell-for-leather acrobatics in last year's The Aviator. It's those moments that give this otherwise mild-and-polished affair its emotional spikes, but what binds the whole contraption together is Hopkins himself. The world-class Hopkins more than compensates for Donaldson's script, inhabiting his role with such authenticity and verve that it's impossible to stray your attention from him. Without an actor of Hopkins' caliber, The World's Fastest Indian might've sunk in its own puddle of overly sweet but honorable intentions. It's thanks to Hopkins that Donaldson serves Burt Munro proudly.

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The World's Fastest Indian Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG-13, 2005

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