Like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins has become a bit of a caricature of himself in his later years. Since becoming an icon with his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in three films, Hopkins has been an incurable ham, overacting in almost every movie he appears in, regardless of the size of the part. The most refreshing thing about The World's Fastest Indian, then, is the way that Hopkins brings some restraint to his role as curmudgeonly kiwi Burt Munro. He's charming and the very opposite of the blowhard he's been recently in Proof and Alexander. The film is so languid, though, that at times you may find yourself wishing that Hopkins would eat someone's liver.
Indian tells the true story of Munro, who in the late 1960s set a world land-speed record on his 1920 Indian motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Munro has spent 25 years in his small hometown of Invercargill, New Zealand, dreaming of racing at Speed Week in Utah, in one of the only places with enough flat open space for vehicles to get up to speeds in the hundreds of miles per hour. He tinkers with his pride and joy in his shed, aided by a cute neighbor boy, and manages to cobble together enough money to catch a boat to America.
Once in LA, Munro scrapes by thanks to the kindness of strangers, and makes it to Utah and into the official Speed Week judging the same way. Writer-director Roger Donaldson, himself a New Zealander with a long career in Hollywood, has been working to bring Munro's story to the big screen for over 30 years (he made a documentary short on Munro in 1971), and his love for the subject matter shows through in the film. More than anything, Indian is a love letter to the determined old man who wanted nothing more than to race his motorcycle.
It's touching that Donaldson has such affection for Munro and wants to bring his story to a larger audience, but the film has all the weight of a feather pillow and the dramatic tension of a nice cat nap. You'd think that Munro's struggle to get from his tiny town to a barren wasteland on the other side of the world would make for a compelling story, but he's so likable and charming that nothing is ever tough for him for more than a few minutes. Even the local gang of motorcycle hoodlums come to wish him well and give him some traveling money for his big trip to America.
Everyone Munro runs into, from the wise old Indian (this one a Native American, not a motorcycle) to the tranny with a heart of gold to the fellow speed demons who rally to his cause, is a stereotype, but none is ever given enough time to develop into a real character, since Munro is soon off to the next phase of his journey. It's a long, rambling road to Bonneville, and Donaldson takes his sweet time getting there (this is certainly not the world's fastest movie). A movie this insubstantial has no right to a running time that exceeds two hours, and there are whole scenes that could easily be excised without any consequence.
Indian is far too eager to please to be really disliked, and Hopkins' casually ingratiating performance is such a breath of fresh air that it's tempting to give the movie a pass based solely on that. It's not quite enough, though, to overcome the sluggishness of the rest of it.