Aussie-Kiwi director Roger Donaldson has built a respectable (if not particularly ambitious) career making competent Hollywood thrillers like No Way Out, Thirteen Days and The Recruit. But one of his earliest jobs behind the camera was the 1971 documentary Offerings to the God of Speed, an account of a plucky 72-year-old New Zealander named Burt Munro, who sought to break the world record for land speed at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats.
Now, more than 30 years later, Donaldson comes full circle with this whimsically fictionalized account of Munro's fateful journey to 1967's Speed Week. Combining two tried-and-true film genres the victorious underdog and eccentric road movie his episodic crowd-pleaser is hokey, predictable and utterly irresistible.
Anthony Hopkins sports a convincing New Zealand accent in his role as the eccentric and determined Burt Munro. Living in a cinderblock shed and endlessly revamping his custom-built 40-year-old Indian motorbike with homemade parts, Burt saves his pennies for a trip to Bonneville "just to see how fast she'll go." Saddled with a bum ticker, bad hearing and more gruff charm than you can shake a stick at, he manages to make it as far as big bad Los Angeles. With few resources and fewer friends, Burt relies on determination and opened-faced kookiness to win him the support of various colorful locals (a transvestite motel clerk, a Latino used car dealer) to send him on his way. With a beater car and makeshift trailer, he treks across the American West, falling into one slight but amiable adventure after another. Finally arriving in Bonneville for Speed Week, he's rebuked by officials for failing to register. Worse still, his bike fails every safety check in the book. With only his charisma to fall back on, will the sexagenarian get to compete?
The film's "based on a true story" credentials promise that the conclusion is pretty foregone. Still, Donaldson's skillful direction and doggedly heartwarming script wear you down and win you over. Sure the stereotypes and dramatic orchestral swells get to be a bit much, but there's no denying Munro's attempt to break the land speed record is a gripping piece of sports drama; only the most black-hearted of viewers will fail to root for the old coot.
Much of the film's appeal rests on Hopkins' very capable shoulders. His effortless acting style brings a much-needed sense of reality to the script's most contrived moments. With a wry sense of humor, he captures both the obsessive and innocent qualities of this endearing old man.
The supporting cast including Paul Rodriguez and Diane Ladd is relegated to little more than cameo appearances as the colorful misfits Munro encounters along the way. Everyone does a fine job, but Chris Williams stands out as the cross-dressing clerk who becomes Burt's first American admirer.
To say that The World's Fastest Indian defies a clear audience demographic would be a bit of an understatement. Its rambling narrative, arcane subject matter and sentimental spirit would seem to make it a marketing nightmare. But it's hard to resist the film's vintage sensibilities and disorderly style. Much like Burt Munro himself, the film works its relentless and peculiar charms and turns you into a fan.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.