World's Fastest Indian, The

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 03/02/06 09:37:04

"I like this one more than it deserves; that's movie magic."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I have long suspected that the reason good actors sometimes overdo the acting-thing—i.e., are hammy—is that the character is underwritten and the director doesn’t know how to talk to actors to elicit a good performance. With no writing or direction, even great actors can fall back on mannerisms and fussiness—what’s known in the business as “business.” Laurence Olivier was infamous for drawing performances out of fake noses. His contemporary successor, Anthony Hopkins, can worry you to death.

But in the new film “The World’s Fastest Indian,” there’s no need to build a characterization out of gesture and busy-ness. Writer/director Roger Donaldson (“Thirteen Days,” “Dante’s Peak”) knew the man whose story is told in the film and allows Hopkins to have his best role since “The Remains of the Day.”

He’s Burt Munro, a sixty-something mechanic living in Invercargill, New Zealand in 1963. His only interest is speed. That’s all it’s ever been. He lives in a cinder-block shed with his best “old girl,” a 1920 Indian Twin Scout motorcycle (he pronounces it to rhyme with “pickle”) that he’s been tinkering with it for forty years. Every tinker—every cannibalized door hinge and tin can—makes her a little faster.

His dream is to take the old girl to Bonneville Flats in Utah to see how fast she can really go. His friends, a list of which would include everyone in town as even at his most eccentric he’s a lovable fella, find ways to raise the money. Even at that, he has to work his passage on a steamer by becoming the cook.

When he arrives in the States, the film becomes a picaresque road picture. The first friend he makes in America is the cross-dressing night clerk (Chris Williams) in the pay-by-the-hour motel his cab driver takes him to. It’s characteristic of both Burt and the movie that “Tine” doesn’t phase the old guy for a moment. Tina is willing to help him get around until he can buy a used car, and the two become pals.

After buying the car from salesman Hernando (Paul Rodriguez), Burt is offered a job at the dealership, fixing up the vehicles, but he’s off for Utah. On the road he meets a lonely widow (Diane Ladd) who is willing to exchange spare parts for a one-night-stand, a Native American with whom he swaps tales for native remedies, and a soldier on leave from Vietnam who believes the war will soon be over due to the application of a miracle product called Agent Orange.

Whether or not Burt will set a land speed record provides the film its plot, but its heart comes from Hopkins. The movie is pure New Zealand and it presents to us something Hollywood has a lot of trouble with—a genuinely nice, modest, likeable fella who isn’t a crime buster or handsome young stud or hot shot professional.

Burt’s a mechanic and he lives in a shed. His best friend is the young boy who lives next door (a terrific Aaron Murphy), and his sometimes girlfriend, who admits that “dirty old men need love, too,” is on the far side of middle-aged (Annie Whittle).

I frequently end up cheering for the underdog in movies like this, but I usually feel manipulated when I do.

Not this time. I like this guy. He’s more than a little like my grandfather. Your’s too, maybe.

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