Fifteen minutes later, though, I'm grinning ear to ear, transfixed by Munro's indomitable spirit and irascible old-man forgetfulness. It's tough to explain how the film wins you over, but credit rests squarely on Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Munro. He grasps perfectly the fog of memory elderly people get lost in while chasing their elusive waves of sentimentality. Munro's affable, unconcerned and remarkably single-minded until he's given the past to ponder, a photo album to dig through. It's a beautiful, instant transformation that hints both at the power of memory and the yearning to be remembered. "These are the people I remember," Munro's eyes say, "but who'll remember me?" The need to be remembered has driven Munro for the better part of 40 years to seek his immortality in the land-speed record books. His only chance to get there lies a world away, on the salt flats of Utah.
Perhaps the thing that most endears Munro to me, though -- and here I'm alerting you to a critical bias that you can treat however you see fit -- is that the old dude acts pretty much like my own grandpa, right down to the jolly little self-effacing chuckle. (When a neighbor boy discovers Munro whittling down his massive yellow toenails with a grinder and says, "That's disgusting," Munro offers a knowing giggle: "Yea-hah! It is, idn't it?")
Writer/director Roger Donaldson has the good sense to mimic Munro's purity of drive and singularity of ambition in the screenplay. The World's Fastest Indian is a very simple story: man, machine and almost nothing else. The only real digression (other than some business involving a rival New Zealand motorcycle gang) is what assholes Americans, especially Angelenos, are. Even in the 1960s, we were brutish, arrogant and violent. The point's made, but at great length, causing Indian to sag in the middle. The rest though, when it's just Munro, his bike and the salt flats looming in the distance, clips along vibrantly and with purpose.
It's that adherence to the most fundamental of underdog themes that ultimately makes the rooster crowing at the beginning OK. This is a simple film, an archetypal one. We're not overburdened with the technological minutiae of the motorcycle any more than we're encumbered with such effluvia as inter-squad rivalries or race tensions. It's just a man, a bike and a goal. The film isn't even so much about the land speed record Munro pursues. The real battle -- the thing that's implicit in all films like this, but that The World's Fastest Indian makes explicit -- is Burt's race against oblivion. Like every underdog from the Hoosiers to the Jamaican bobsled team, he wants to be remembered as a person who did something. Indeed, in a world that only remembers accomplishments, doing something is the only way to be remembered at all. Though it's often a goofy film, Donaldson and Hopkins hammer home that most grave reality. (Rated PG-13)