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On motorbikes, determination and being a nice guy

Posted at 9:14 AM on February 1, 2006 by Euan Kerr

The opening shots of "The World's Fastest Indian" are encrusted in oil, rust and decrepitude. And that's before you even see the close-up of Anthony Hopkins' face. Director Roger Donaldson's tale of the aging New Zealander who broke the world record for a stream-lined motorbike in 1967 (a record that still stands) will satisfy a lot of gear-heads. It will satisfy a lot of other people too.

This is a film about determination. Sixty-eight-year-old Burt Munro (Hopkins) is told again and again that he has to give up his dream of racing his ancient, albeit souped-up, Indian motorcycle across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. But it's also about how being a decent human being can get you a long way. Hopkins plays Munro as a friendly niaf with a talent of coaxing incredible speed out of an old machine held together with scrap metal. He is so disarmingly charming that even when he runs into obstacles that would derail a more worldly fellow, people seem to rally round to get him going again.

The film is also about aging, not gracefully, but while refusing to set aside the dirt and grease-covered dreams of youth. Burt Munro may feel aches and pains, and have a dodgy ticker, but he's not going to let that get in the way of his riding his bike as fast as he can. Nor is it going to stop him hooking up with a few new female friends along the way. One of my favorite lines of the year comes as one lover asks neighbors what they are staring at: "Dirty old men need love too!" she shouts, although the dirty clearly is a reference to engine grease as opposed to much else.

Director Donaldson made a documentary about Burt Munro in the 1970's called "Offerings to the Gods of Speed." He has apparently wanted to make a feature about Munro ever since, but it has taken him until now, a quarter century after Munro's death, for the film to make it to the screen.

Cinematographer David Gribble does a magnificent job of capturing both the human and the mechanical detail in this story. His use of minutely composed close-ups early in the film magnify the majesty of the Utah salt flats when Burt finally gets there.

This is a bittersweet film that has something for everyone. The script occasionally trips on it's own cliches, but Hopkins and a supporting cast including cameo roles by Diane Ladd and Paul Rodriguez, quickly pull it back on its feet. Hopkins one again displays the dramatic skills that make him as one of the top stars in the world. The fact that the people he acts with shine all the more as a result makes any film he does better. "The World's Fastest Indian" is a little gem.

February 2006
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