WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN, THE - HD DVD review

It's hard not to like Hopkins' Burt Munro, which means it's hard not to like The World's Fastest Indian.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Note: In the following joint effort, John wrote the first film review, the video, audio, extras, and closing remarks, and Erik wrote the second film review.

The Film According to John:
It seems as if in the last few decades we've seen Anthony Hopkins showing up in films either as a decided villain, sometimes of the most-heinous kind ("Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal," "Red Dragon," "Fracture") or as a loveable old codger ("The Road to Wellville," "Hearts in Atlantis," "Proof"). In "The World's Fastest Indian" Hopkins is in full loveable mode. And so is the movie.

Hopkins plays the real-life New Zealander Burt Munro (1899-1978), who at the age of sixty-eight set the land speed record for under 1000 cc motorcycles at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. "The World's Fastest Indian" (2005) recounts Burt's experiences getting to Bonneville, the "holy ground" of racing, starting in the early 1960s.

Munro owned, built, tuned, rode, and raced motorcycles all his life. But his first attempt to reach Bonneville was far from easy. At the time the movie begins, Burt is a pensioner, living alone, and forever tinkering with his ancient, 1920, modified Munro Special Indian Scout motorcycle. He's got hardly enough money to get to America, let alone stay there long enough to find Utah. The film's writer and director, Roger Donaldson, divides the picture into three parts: Burt's endeavors to find backing to get to America, Burt's odyssey to the Salt Flats, and Burt's time trials at Bonneville. But, really, the film is about Burt and his acquaintances. It's the character of Burt Munro and the personal relationships he has in the movie more than the actual, historical events, that make the story so personable and pleasant.

Things begin in New Zealand, where we meet Burt and his friends, a lady of close ties, Fran (Annie Whittle), and a neighbor boy, Tom (Aaron Murphy), whose parents think he's a crackpot. Well, actually, you can't blame the neighbors; Burt pees on his lemon tree to fertilize it and tries burning down his lawn rather than mowing it. Then we meet a motorcycle gang that threatens to disrupt the idyllic countryside but doesn't. After that we see Burt working his way across the Pacific to Los Angeles on a tramp steamer, with his motorcycle in the hold, and then his trek from L.A. to Utah. During his trip, he meets more colorful characters, like Fernanado (Paul Rodriguez), a used-car salesman whom he befriends; Tina (Chris Williams), a transvestite whom he befriends; Jake (Saginaw Grant), a Native American whom he befriends; Rusty (Patrick Flueger), a soldier whom he befriends; Ada (Diane Ladd), a lady whom he befriends; Jim (Chris Lawford), a fellow racer whom he befriends; and Rollie (William Lucking), a motorcycle enthusiast whom he befriends.

Just how does Burt befriend all these new people, all of whom offer to help him, a stranger, in one way or another? By being himself. By being nice. By being continuously cheerful and upbeat. No matter how desperate the situation, Burt always maintains an optimistic outlook. He has an indomitable will, an invariable politeness, and an unfailing sense of humor. Obviously, they serve him (and the audience) well. The movie remains cheerful, upbeat, optimistic, polite, and humorous to the end.

I might add that Burt, at least in the film, also has a penchant for aphorisms. He seems never at a loss for pithy maxims like "You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people live in a lifetime." Or "Danger is the spice of life, and you've got to take a risk now and again, haven't you?" Or, summing up the movie's major theme, "If you don't follow through on your dreams, you might as well be a vegetable."

OK, if there was one small matter that did begin to grate on me in time, it was Burt's hearing loss. I'm sure this part of his makeup was accurate, but it began to get old really fast listening to Burt say "What?" "Huh?" "Eh?" and "What's that?" about every two minutes. Then again, in a few instances his being hard of hearing endears him to us and even reveals something about his personality, so mine is but a minor qualm.

Director Donaldson apparently had wanted to make this film for some time, having done a short documentary on Munro in 1971 when the man was still living, a film included among the disc's extras. When Donaldson finally got the chance, he created an air of authenticity by filming almost entirely on location in New Zealand, Los Angeles, New Mexico, and, of course, Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. It works.

"The World's Fastest Indian" is essentially an inspirational sports story, but only the original "Rocky" can match it for sheer heart. It's a great feel-good film, with a sweetness and inspiration that are hard to beat.

"Burt returned to Bonneville nine times setting numerous land speed records. Burt's 1967 record for streamlined motorcycles under 1000 cc's still stands."

The Film According to Erik:
"The World's Fastest Indian" is a fairly straightforward film. It unravels rather unspectacularly, but does so in a tried-and-true formula that allows Anthony Hopkins to shine. His Burt Munro is a role that you can't imagine being played by anyone else (even if it based on a true story). Director Roger Donaldson has fashioned a film that, despite being an essentially by-the-numbers take on the material, is an inspirational and touching account of one man's passion.

It took Donaldson some 25 years to get Munro's tale to the big screen. His love of Burt's story is readily apparent in the way he handles the material. Donaldson wants to charm you just as Burt does. Much like Burt, the film is simple but grows on you rather quickly due to Munro's pervasive charm. The movie opens in 1960's New Zealand, where Burt is in the midst of working on his 1920 Indian motorcycle. His obsession with the bike is evident. He lives rather modestly, disturbs the neighbors with his early morning bike tests and cheerfully goes about his business while maintaining the love and support of his community.

Like Donaldson's devotion to the film, such is Burt's devotion to his motorcycle. He has spent well over 20 years working on his bike, perfecting it from day to day using the very limited resources he has at his disposal. His dream is to get the bike to the United States where he hopes to enter the Bonneville speed week trials at the Salt Flats in Utah. He endures some hardships along the way, including a slightly humiliating racing defeat, early on, by a group of Kiwi bikers.

Still, Burt persists despite a heart problem that never really seems to pose all that big a threat. His obstacles are more like minor speed bumps that he has to endure to make it to his destination. Burt manages to find a great amount of help along the way. He meets a host of characters that include a sweet and caring transvestite, who helps Burt clear his bike through customs; a car salesman, who recruits Burt to help fix some cars in exchange for the use of his mechanic shop; and the assorted group of speed week enthusiasts who grow to rally behind Burt and his big dreams of setting the land speed record.

From the onset it seems that the odds are stacked against him. He has little money for his trip to the U.S. but finds help from the people he befriends along his journey. Burt is relentlessly charismatic in his own quirky sort of way. He makes people smile with a few words and wins them over in no time. The film works in much the same fashion; while Burt is likable when you first meet him, he's downright loveable when the time comes for the credits to roll. To say the least, he's a delightfully infectious character.

There is a scene near the beginning of the third act when some of the speed week personnel ask Burt to check in for registration. He wanders over to the registration booth and speaks with the officials only to learn that he can't register because registration closed a few months prior. How was Burt to know all the way down in Kiwi land? Munro's reaction--his uncertainty, love of racing, passion and dedication--come through in spades and is a testament to Hopkins' genius as an actor. He manages to make Burt's trials and tribulations ours as well. We feel for Burt and cheer for him, root for him when things get a little tough, and then we finally come to realize that there's a little bit of Burt in all of us, and that's why, ultimately, we love him so much.

"The World's Fastest Indian" is one little gem of a picture. It offers up a fair amount of enjoyment, all made possible by a superb performance by Anthony Hopkins. While the film might be somewhat trite in how it's presented, this is more than made up for by the sheer force of charm brought on by Hopkins acting and Donaldson's sure-handed direction. The story is uplifting, inspirational, and filled with the same lively energy that makes Burt the kind of person we all hope to be.

Video:
Magnolia Home Entertainment present the film in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which displays all of the best characteristics of good HD-DVD video. The opening shots, filmed outdoors, are the only ones that have more than a bit of grain in them; otherwise, the screen is free of any noise or impediments. Close-ups look extremely well detailed, and colors are generally natural except in some facial tones early on that look too deeply saturated. I admit, I've been watching so many movies in HD lately that I'm beginning to take them for granted. It's only when I watch standard-definition discs or, shudder, regular SD cable broadcasts, that I come back to Earth. This one looks pretty good to me.

Audio:
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound does up the audio proud. It is very clean, very well spread out across the front channels, and very dynamic. There is not a lot of rear-channel activity, but what we do hear adds a realistic touch of ambient information in the surrounds. There is a good dynamic impact present, too, that helps enormously in the racing scenes. Bass is not particularly deep, but it is taut, which makes up for a lot. For those listeners unable to access the Dolby TrueHD track, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 also sounds good, if not displaying quite the breadth or depth of field that the TrueHD does.

Extras:
The HD-DVD carries over the extras from the standard-definition DVD. The three main items are, first, a bonus film, the twenty-seven-minute documentary "Offerings to the God of Speed," made by writer/director Donaldson in 1971 and featuring historical footage of the real Burt Munro. Next is a forty-five-minute, behind-the-scenes affair, "The Making of The World's Fastest Indian," with comments from most of the major cast members. And the third item is an above-average audio commentary by Donaldson, who seems on this track as dedicated to telling Burt Munro's story as he comes across in making his film.

Things conclude with four deleted scenes, totaling about four minutes; a three-minute promotional film, "Southland: Burt's Hometown of Invercargill"; twenty-four scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and French subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. As this is an HD-DVD, the disc also includes menus that the viewer can make fade in and out as the movie is playing; previews for several upcoming Magnolia Home Entertainment HD-DVD releases; and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
It's hard not to like Hopkins' Burt Munro, which means it's hard not to like "The World's Fastest Indian." It is, however, a movie I confess did not interest me when it appeared in theaters, and it wasn't until Magnolia Pictures sent me a "For Your Consideration" screener that the Wife-O-Meter and I somewhat reluctantly watched it. We were both hooked. The film draws you in with its gentle humor and tenacious good will. Indeed, the film became such a favorite of my wife that when Magnolia made it available on standard-definition DVD, she bought a copy for every member of her family. And she's got a big family.

As always, the HD-DVD enhances what is already a good movie, the disc's improved video and audio making not only Burt's story more enjoyable but making the whole movie-watching experience more pleasurable.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
8
Film Value
7