In “Get Shorty,” hack filmmaker Gene Hackman was desperate to make his “Driving Miss Daisy.” Roger Donaldson, whose over-the-top flicks include “Cocktail,” “The Recruit” and “Species,” has found his own “Daisy,” of a sort.
“The World’s Fastest Indian” is a class act, a deeply personal story Donaldson nurtured and dreamed about making since the 1970s, after the death of an eccentric New Zealander who was the subject of a documentary the filmmaker had done a few years earlier.
Donaldson’s “Offerings to the God of Speed” chronicled the passions of Burt Munro, an old man who made motorcycle history in the 1960s with record-setting runs at the Utah salt flats aboard his patched-together 1920 Indian Twin Scout.
Now the Australian director dramatizes the story, with Anthony Hopkins, star of Donaldson’s “The Bounty,” excising all traces of Hannibal Lecter guile and ominousness to play the joyously befuddled and childlike Burt in all his rash compulsion.
Though the film drags on longer than necessary and dead-ends with a few sputtering scenes, writer-director Donaldson crafts an inspirational road trip that’s a testament to the infectiousness of one man’s impossible dreams.
We first meet Burt in his own element, the backwater New Zealand town of Invercargill, where he infuriates neighbors by cranking his Indian’s deafening engine at all hours, jury-rigs his ride with any found object that will give it more speed and runs the occasional impromptu race against biker gangs.
Burt’s a local hero whose friends chip in what cash they can to help him realize his life’s desire, taking his Indian to Bonneville, Utah, where the endless salt flats are home to annual speed trials.
It all comes together abruptly and Burt finds himself sailing on a rickety cargo ship to America, his motorcycle boxed up in the hold. Traveling from Los Angeles to Utah, Burt meets a lovable drag queen, a helpful Indian, courteous Customs agents and a big-hearted used-car salesman, and he even manages a casual romance or two along the way.
Like Richard Farnsworth’s wayfarer in David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” another on-the-road charmer, Burt sows decency wherever he goes. The cynicism, dubiousness and scorn of strangers melts away as Burt somehow bends the world to his will, not by force of personality but by simple, nagging persistence.
Burt makes himself such a lovably bullheaded pest, people’s conviction that he’s just a crank gives way to curiosity, affection, then flat-out cheerleading for his goals, until everyone he meets eventually is on board with his need for speed.
A few of Burt’s encounters are flat and pointless, hanging there like spare parts that add nothing to the story. More tinkering by Donaldson could have resulted in a leaner, meaner film.
Burt radiates good humor, and Hopkins clearly relishes his eccentricities, grooming his toenails with a power grinder, chortling like a kid at show and tell as he points out the cork from a brandy bottle or the kitchen-door hinge among the odds and ends used to soup up his motorcycle.
At this point, you figure Hopkins will just show up and play a variation of Anthony Hopkins. Yet, in Burt, he finds something new, an engaging hybrid of a man who’s shy, awkward and trusting to the kindness of strangers in most situations and a daredevil who roars to life like an X Games superstar when he climbs on that bike.
Burt tells his new friends that people are more comfortable with old people who curl up in a corner and die, yet his motivations never seem defiant, nor does the film present him as a man looking to go out in a blaze of glory.
Hopkins and Donaldson present not a man with a death wish but a surging desire to endure and give life a hard, fast run for its money.