The World’s Fastest Indian (Magnolia Pictures, PG-13)

Anthony Hopkins in his best performance since his turn as John Quincy Adams in Amistad To be succinct, The World’s Fastest Indian is the most charming movie I’ve seen all year.

Based on the accomplishments of New Zealander Bert Munro (Anthony Hopkins in his best performance since his turn as John Quincy Adams in Amistad), The World’s Fastest Indian is both about Munro’s 1967 quest to break the land speed record for motorcycles and his journey to reach Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats to accomplish just that. Part road movie, part action, The World’s Fastest Indian moves deftly between character study and adrenaline rush better than any recent film attempts that come to mind.

Beginning in New Zealand, Munro is surrounded by colorful characters—none more so than he, though, who rally around the spirit he possesses to reach what most feel will be an unattainable goal. After all, this is a man in his 70s whose motorcycle, a 1920 Indian Scout, is not much younger than he is. Regardless of the result, however, the friends recognize the need to make the attempt is the important thing, and so a collection is raised and Bert is shipped off overseas to America.

Along the way, he encounters the aforementioned collection of characters: the ship’s middle eastern crew, a cross-dressing hotel clerk, a used car salesman, an elderly Native American, a lonely widow, and a young Vietnam veteran, all of whom assist in some way to get Bert to Utah. And once there, the characters continue to roll in in the form of the racing enthusiasts gathered for Speed Week, all of whom become smitten with Bert and do what they can to help him in his attempt at the record.

It all sounds quite corny laid out like this, but onscreen is a very warm series of interactions that are a welcome distraction from the harsh reality of everyday life. Maybe the adventure Munro had wasn’t quite so delightful, but it hardly matters because the story is so captivating.

The occasional lapse in time-appropriate set decoration and costuming were a bit distracting. Modern day stuff kept slipping in, such as adjustable-size baseball caps, background extras in current-style clothing, and most annoyingly, modern signage in a couple locations—specifically a weakly blacked out Sonic Drive-In in Los Angeles, 27 years before its time.

There are also a couple of soapbox moments with Bert preaching the hazards of smoking to all who indulge and a horrors of war speech directed to the young Vietnam veteran—current issues worth noting, to be sure, but also perhaps indicative of Bert being a man ahead of his time. All in all, though, these complaints are minimal and are easily forgiveable since the film is so enthralling, not only from an acting and scripting standpoint, but also from a visual one.

The cinematography is perfect, varying from extreme close-ups of actors’ eyes, hands, and the props they wield to vast open landscapes along the beaches of New Zealand and the arid spaces of the American Southwest. All this is brought together under the direction of Roger Donaldson, whose interest in the subject started shortly after Munro’s 1967 adventure, when Donaldson and partner Mike Smith teamed to make a documentary on Munro entitled Offerings to the God of Speed.

Perhaps that is why the film works so well. Only a director so committed to an idea could capture the true essence of a man so committed to a passion of his own.

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