Part road movie, part extreme-sports biopic, and all shaggy-dog story, Roger Donaldson’s The World’s Fastest Indian evades easy classification—to say nothing of a target audience, unless aficionados of over-the-hill-biker flicks have become a sought-after demographic. Regardless, it’s hard to resist the film’s pleasantly rambling narrative and market-defying eccentricity. Indian tells the true-ish story of Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), a sexagenarian New Zealand loner who, in 1967, hauls his 40-plus-year-old Indian brand motorcycle to a Utah raceway to see how fast it’ll go, and subsequently breaks a speed record. On his trip, the amiable Munro encounters and invariably charms various rural Yank oddballs (including, briefly, a randy isolato played by Diane Ladd) in a succession of tender, go-nowhere vignettes that owe something to The Straight Story.
Donaldson, a decent light-action director whose spotty Hollywood career reveals selectiveness if little else, chronicled the real-life Munro in his 1972 doc Offerings to the God of Speed, and his fondness for the subject is evident; Indian largely eschews excessive speed-junkie thrills in favor of sharp, affectionate characterization, and its stabs at an overarching message—something about holding on to your dreams no matter how old you get—are mercifully minimized. Which isn’t to say that Indian is a masterwork of realism or even Lynchian homespun weirdness: Munro’s stopover in a cartoonishly freakified L.A. is banal and tedious, and the dubious distinction of making one’s loud, stinking machine go faster than anyone else’s loud, stinking machine hardly amounts to a universal preoccupation. Moreover, Hopkins—whose interiority, unlike his feigned Kiwi accent, fits the role nicely—phones in a good deal of his performance. But Donaldson and his cast still manage to capture something of the strange randomness of existence here, and the result is a film as tenacious, peculiar, and likable as Burt Munro himself.