Anthony Hopkins lends style points to any movie in which he appears. The thing may be a dog, but the actor who brought the gruesome psychopath Hannibal Lecter to life and got deep inside a repressed English butler always gives us something fascinating to behold. The depth and gravity of his work remain even when all else fails.
This is a roundabout way of saying that The World’s Fastest Indian is not likely to be regarded as some kind of masterpiece — far from it — but Hopkins once more keeps our ears open and our eyes fixed on the screen. Written and directed by Roger Donaldson, whose work seems to alternate between the explosively bad (Dante’s Peak) and the pretty good (Thirteen Days), this is the real-life tale of one Burt Munro, an eccentric New Zealander who, in 1963, finally fulfilled a lifelong dream of racing his souped-up but ancient Indian motorcycle across the Bonneville Salt Flats in pursuit of a land speed record.
Donaldson is clearly enthralled by the subject — he made a documentary about his countryman Munro, Offerings to the God of Speed, way back in 1971 — and this time he heaps upon poor old Burt equal measures of corn and schmaltz. Luckily, Hopkins is that rare brand of actor who can withstand such assault. He’s called upon in Indian to discuss his aging character’s enlarged prostate, express all manner of geezer determination, and deliver worn-out pronouncements such as: “You live more in five minutes on a bike like this than most people do in a lifetime.” But the movie is not worse for it, because Hopkins is so much better than the material. Sometimes, a ballplayer has his best year playing on a bad team. So, too, an actor.
The most we learn about Burt Munro before he makes his historic pilgrimage to Utah is that he’s a pensioner who lives alone in a cinderblock shack in the town of Invercargill. Where did he pick up his genius for engine modification? Or his obsession with speed? For that matter, what did he do for a living before retirement? Donaldson neglects to say, depending instead on the characteristic weakness of moviemakers from Down Under for misty sentimentality. By the time our hero raises money for his trip and stuffs what he calls his “motor-sickle” and its aerodynamic maroon shell into a shipping crate, he’s bathed in a kind of fairy-tale light: the kiwi as household saint. He even indulges a cute, worshipful neighbor lad, who comes complete with red hair and freckles.
Happily, Indian picks up a notch or two once it goes on the road and Hopkins gets a chance to break out of Donaldson’s nostalgia trap. Aboard a tramp steamer, Munro cooks for the other passengers to pay his fare. Ashore in Los Angeles, he’s ripped off by a cab driver and stumbles into a hooker motel whose desk clerk is a cordial transvestite named Tina (Chris Williams). An innocent abroad is dear Burt, and he absorbs everything with happy equanimity. En route to the salt flats, his tiny bike hitched up behind the $250 Chevy junker he bought in L.A., he sleeps with a salty widow (Diane Ladd) who knows her way around a welding torch. He communes with a soulful Native American who gives him a good-luck amulet and a folk remedy for his angina. He runs afoul of the Nevada State Patrol and has a serious talk with a young U.S. Air Force pilot (Patrick Flueger) on leave from the growing troubles in Vietnam. Before long, the road movie conventions get so thick that you wonder when Burt will run into Bob Hope. But Hopkins manages to turn this quirky, single-minded idealist into something special — a wholly likable striver whose dignity and dream we want to embrace too.
And the Bonneville part? Let’s not go too far here, except to report that Burt and his bike, which is partly constructed of brandy corks and door hinges, run into a couple of bureaucratic tangles and some frightening bouts of speed wobble before they . . . well, you know how hero stories end. Suffice it to say that no one will mistake Roger Donaldson for a film artist, and the sight of a decrepit, 70-year-old man hunched over the handlebars at 200 miles an hour isn’t the most edifying thing you’ll ever see. As for Hopkins, the charming, perfectly detailed performance he puts in here is probably destined for the second rank of his formidable canon, somewhere between the depths of Meet Joe Black and the Oscar-winning turn of The Silence of the Lambs. Still, in the case of an actor this accomplished, even mediocrity can be terrific.