Is the movie industry trying to put Anthony Hopkins out to pasture? Between the lifetime achievement award he just got at the Golden Globes and the alternately doddering and cheerfully senescent roles in which he’s recently been cast, the message seems to be “OK, Sir Tony, it was great watching you play all those psychos and megalomaniacs, chewing all that scenery, but you’re not a kid anymore. It’s time to slow down. … Here, read this script; there’s a part in it for you. We were gonna offer it to Jack Lemmon, but it turns out he’s been dead for five years.”
In The World’s Fastest Indian, Hopkins plays Burt Munro, a man from Invercargill, New Zealand, who devoted decades of his life to building and customizing a 1920 Indian motorcycle and then spent his retirement using it to set world land-speed records. Burt was a real guy, and a fair portion of the film is based on actual events but, even allowing for the changes wrought by the passage of 40 years, it’s hard to recognize Burt’s world as our own. In his small way, Burt seems to live a charmed life and to charm the pants (sometimes literally) off of everyone around him. Hopkins plays him as that venerable archetype, the colorful eccentric, full of the “life force” and universally beloved, even by the neighbors who regularly awaken at 5:30 a.m. to the roar of Burt revving his engine. Burt is good-humored and entirely agreeable, as is the movie itself; it takes place, like the recent Breakfast on Pluto, in a world where eccentrics may sometimes be marginalized, mistrusted, or mistreated but finally, inevitably, are accepted and welcomed, made the mascots of the human race. They’re like us, you see, only more so: Their peculiarities are just exaggerated versions of the small idiosyncrasies we each have. This is a pleasant and tolerant worldview, as far as it goes, but it seems a bit blinkered to some fundamental realities. Most of the obsessives I’ve known are considerably more scary and tiresome than Burt; they tend to devote less time to twinkling and being adorable and more to buttonholing people and expounding at length and in agonizing detail on their elaborate schemes. And in dealing with their single-minded, often extreme behavior, most people are far less patient than the genial biker gangs, drag queens, and Native American mystics who help Burt along his journey.
I have to confess that I nonetheless found Hopkins’ performance involving; though I would prefer to see him in a role that gave him a few more layers to play with, his twinkling skills are pretty impressive. Still, it seems strange that he chose not to make the character less of a mensch; in interviews with Hopkins, what inevitably comes through is his own prickly hardheadedness and self-determination, qualities that would have been apt for Burt and made the character both more textured and more believable. The fault may lie with the director, Roger Donaldson, who previously worked with Hopkins in the far richer role of Captain Bligh in 1984’s The Bounty. Donaldson, a Kiwi himself, has a resume consisting almost entirely of thrillers (the most recent are The Recruit  and Thirteen Days ); maybe he wanted to take a break, go home to New Zealand for a little while (about a third of the movie was shot there, the rest in Utah), and make a small, quirky film about a sort of everyman, an uplifting story about beating the odds. It is perhaps telling that Burt resembles the hero of Donaldson’s early film Smash Palace, if only all the dramatic incidents in that film hadn’t happened to him. Donaldson seems to be enjoying himself: The camerawork (by the Australian cinematographer David Gribble) is handsome, and the racing sequences in particular have a joyous excitement. But there’s not enough of their intensity to go around; most of the film isn’t about Burt’s achievements but about his journey to the Bonneville Salt Flats where he’ll make them. Along the way, Burt overcomes many minor obstacles and has some little adventures, but these scenes just happen and then they’re over; they don’t really add up to anything. The Americans he encounters along the way keep telling him, “You’re not in New Zealand; you’re in America,” and “You’re too old,” but Burt twinkles against the dying of the light; he perseveres, maintains his optimism and his pluck, and sure enough everything turns out just fine.
I shouldn’t overstate the film’s flaws; it’s not a bad movie, just a rather dull one. There’s very little suspense, and the few minor characters that seem at all interesting are dropped before we really get to know them. These are faults, but they’re forgivable; the only really offensive thing about The World’s Fastest Indian is J. Peter Robinson’s score, which is so excessive and insistent that it quashes any natural response in the audience and ruins some scenes that might otherwise work. Racing fans may still get a kick out of the movie, though they’ll undoubtedly be disappointed by the dearth of actual racing scenes, but fans of Hopkins’ work will surely be let down by his slight performance. In some recent statements, Hopkins has implied that he will retire in the next couple of years, and that might be for the best. Though many moviegoers would undoubtedly miss him on the screen, it would be much more kind to them and to himself to forestall the ongoing Jessica-Tandyization of his career.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The World's Fastest Indian / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()