- Hopkins lends fascination to every film he appears in -- this one included.
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 cinder-block shack in the town of Invercargill. 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, where the 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.