“The World’s Fastest Indian” is the story of Burt Munro, the legendary motorcycle racer and speed-record holder, and his journey from his home in New Zealand to the Bonneville salt flats with his ancient Indian streamliner in tow. It ought to be a pretty good story, but somehow manages not to be.
After glossing over Munro’s motivation for traveling halfway around the world to set a speed record, and landing him in America via a tramp steamer, the film turns into a predicable road-trip movie, with Munro encountering a hackneyed cast of kooks and stereotypes—an ethnic cabbie, a winsome transvestite motel clerk, a fast-talking used-car salesman, a lonely widow—as he bumbles his way toward Utah like a Kiwi Mr. Magoo.
At about point where Munro suffers an attack of slapstick by driving on the wrong side of the road, my attention wandered, and never really came back until he finally arrived at the salt. Here’s what I was waiting for, a recreation of Bonneville in the old days, with vintage cars and bikes—but then it was gone, and in its place the plucky underdog Munro winning the hearts of his fellow salt racers before predictably setting the speed record he came for.
The real Burt Munro might not have recognized himself or his story as they’re portrayed in “The World’s Fastest Indian”; considerable liberties were taken with the facts of Munro’s life and his experiences at Bonneville. Fortunately, the DVD extras include “Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed,” a 26-minute 1971 documentary about the real-life Munro that contains no Hollywood fluffing, and is every bit as entertaining as the feature film. Both the feature film and the documentary were made by the writer/director of “The World’s Fastest Indian,” which probably explains why the documentary is the source of a number of quotes and bits of business in the feature film.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I can’t warm up to this movie. But I enjoyed the documentary a lot, and wished it were longer, because the real, unvarnished Munro seems like a much more interesting person than the one portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the movie. My advice is to rent the movie, watch the documentary right away, and then watch the movie later if you don’t have anything better to do. —Jerry Smith