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Stephen Campbell Moore
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For 25 years in Invercargill at the south end of New Zealand, Burt Munro (1899-1978) has been working on increasing the speed of his motorcycle, a 1920 Indian. He dreams of taking it to the Bonneville Salt Flats to see how fast it will go. By the early 1960s, heart disease threatens his life, so he mortgages his house and takes a boat to Los Angeles, buys an old car, builds a makeshift trailer, gets the Indian through customs, and heads for Utah. Along the way, people he meets are charmed by his open, direct friendliness. If he makes it to Bonneville, will they let an old guy on the flats with makeshift tires, no brakes, and no chute? And will the Indian actually respond? Written by
Anthony Hopkins is simply astounding. The man can disappear inside of characters so diverse and capture you so completely, that you have to wonder if his well of talent has a bottom.
This film is at turns charming, bawdy, fascinating, riveting, nerve wracking, hilarious, heartwarming and heartbreaking. As Burt Munro -- an aging New Zealand man losing his hearing, short on money, living in a shed surrounded by weeds, considered a lovable if eccentric oddball by all who know him except one small boy, and obsessed with making a 45 year old motorcycle capable of breaking the land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats -- Hopkins takes us along for the ride every minute of this movie. The fact that this film is based on the true story of Burt Munro makes it all the more captivating, but a lesser actor than Hopkins might very well have lost us along the way. It is no wonder that the children of the real-life Burt Munro were moved to tears by Hopkins' portrayal.
There's a clever ongoing bit about the taste of Burt's hot tea, and you will also wonder a bit about how his lemonade might taste. Every scene is a jewel in this movie, and the cumulative effect proves that extraordinary films do not have to cost bazillions of dollars and take two years of computer-generated special effects to WOW their audience.
Burt is challenged by every imaginable obstacle standing between him and his speed dream: his failing heart may give out any minute, the journey around the world to transport the 1920 Indian motorcycle to the USA seems insurmountable, he has no machine shop or whiz-bang tools and equipment to work his engineering miracles, etc. What he DOES have is an indomitable spirit that will never, ever stop trying. Whether he's battling young ruffians who diss his ancient motorcycle or banking, bureaucrats and red tape, he is a wrinkled but worthy warrior.
The supporting cast is as beautiful and bizarre as it gets, and the audience becomes inordinately fond and just about every one of them except for a nasty foreign cabdriver (Carlos Lacamara), but hey, somebody had to be disliked. Great actors in small roles abound, including Diane Ladd as Ada, a frontier gal that's been lonely a while, Saginaw Grant as Jake, an "Indian" with a really distasteful solution to Burt's prostate problems, and Paul Rodriguez as Fernando, a human and humane used car salesman. Perhaps the best scene -- and heart -- stealer is Chris Williams as Tina, a cross-dressing front desk night clerk at a fleabag hooker hotel. You gotta love him. Or her, as the case may be. Stellar performance, and Hopkins' Burt treats Tina with such dignity it defines friendship.
Don't miss this fine, fine film. And if there is justice in the boffo box office world, The World's Fastest Indian will be a true Oscar contender in 2006.
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