No, you didn’t read that headline wrong, you dirty bird.The “Indian” is, in fact, a motorcycle made in the 1920s. And Anthony Hopkins plays Burt Monro, a 68-year old New Zealander dead set on riding that old relic as fast as he can, straight into the world record books.
“The World’s Fastest Indian” is a feel-good formula movie if there ever was one. Director Roger Donaldson (“Thirteen Days,” “Cocktail”) tries to quirk up the road trip clichés a little by throwing in a drag queen, some geriatric sex, and a wise old Native American man, but basically this is “Days of Thunder” crossed with “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” Munro has all of Cole Trickle’s cockiness and Pee-Wee’s optimistic drive as he heads across the American West in 1967 to realize his dream of racing in Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.
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Why the producers decided to start the film in limited release is due more to the fact that Hopkins doesn’t quite have Tom Cruise’s youth appeal numbers than anything else. If it weren’t old man Hopkins in the lead role, this glossy morale booster would certainly reach a wider audience hungry for the kind of soft and easy-to-swallow underdog stories that were so popular in the eighties.
Donaldson himself is a bit obsessed with Munro, it seems, having already directed a documentary entitled “Offerings to the God of Speed” about the man in 1971. In bringing Munro to fictional life, however, he has sanitized and simplified some of the more interesting aspects of such a driven character. As depicted in the film, Munro lives alone in a shack with his motorcycle. That’s pretty weird. Here, it is cute and charming, as is his relationship with the inquisitive kid next door.
Although the film constantly reminds us that gathering up enough money to travel to America is an impossible dream for Munro, it is an impossibility that is quickly remedied when his neighbors quickly raise the cash, and the charming old coot is off on his road trip. There’s even a gang of tough young motorcycle turks who show up as Munro leaves for the airport with extra cash for his trek. He’s the lovable codger that everybody can get behind!
Everybody in “The World’s Fastest Indian” has a good heart. But what could have been a refreshing change of pace for a modern film soon becomes a dreary pattern. The script’s complete lack of cynicism turns into a silly exercise in innocent exuberance, as Munro is presented with one journey-ending complication after another, only to have the obstacles immediately fall away like so much useless baggage. Who needs suspense when you’ve got so many smiling faces?
“The World’s Fastest Indian” might have been a testament to the less judgmental attitudes of Americans in the late-60s had it not been so incessantly obvious about it. If we are to believe the movie, Munro simply jumped all hurdles with a no-frills positive mental attitude and got by “With a Little Help From” his friends. Donaldson is overjoyed to point out that, in a country that is currently sidetracked with denying homosexuals the right to marry, a 68-year old New Zealander welcomed the friendship of a black transvestite with open arms nearly forty years ago.
For all of its obviousness, “The World’s Fastest Indian” is too slight to absolutely hate, and too inoffensive and cheery to be too offended by. For all its minor pleasures, though, it definitely cannot justify a running time of just over two hours. Had Donaldson cut a half hour or so of scenes that drove the same nagging point home over and over, the movie would feel more like a speed trial and less like a hundred-lap race.