One of the more intriguing things about Anthony Hopkins — despite all his success and knighthood — is that you get the feeling he’s not really interested in reaping the benefits of stardom. That deep down, he’s a classic workaholic who does the job for the sheer love of it and the trappings don’t matter. (He once said in an interview that he doesn’t understand fine dining and prefers grilled-cheese sandwiches at home.)
His best roles (“The Remains of the Day,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Hannibal”) reflect this streak in him; after all, what’s Dr. Lecter if not a man who insisted on honing and perfecting his chosen craft (murder and cannibalism, but still!), and is blind to all other concerns?
Hopkins’ latest is “The World’s Fastest Indian” (“Sekai Saisoku no Indian” in Japan) in which he stars as New Zealand’s real-life motorbike legend Burt Munro. Burt was a man obsessed with speed, but this was back in the early 1960s in Invercargill, New Zealand, where speed meant tinkering for years over the engine of a rickety, ancient Indian Scout and then roaring down to the local beach.
Burt was in his 60s when he decided to take his Indian across the Atlantic to compete in Bonneville, Utah’s “Speed Week,” and at first he was turned away for being “way past the age limit.” Not that a silly rule like that could possibly stop Burt.
Directed by Roger Donaldson (“The Recruit,” “Dante’s Peak”), “The World’s Fastest Indian” shows Hopkins in a rare mode; he’s obsessed but he’s also content, self-effacing and irresistible. Apparently the real Burt had been like that. People were always helping him out, moved by his single-minded love for the Indian (he calls it “my old girl”) and enormous charm. For Hopkins to play “endearing” is something that takes getting used to, but as the story progresses you see that he’s had it in him all along. Burt cracks the most disarming smiles, chats up everyone in a 5-meter radius and flirts with ladies of any age: a dear old coot.
Himself a New Zealander who grew up listening to tales of Burt’s heroics, Donaldson shot a Burt Munro documentary some 20 years ago. He never stopped hoping for a chance to retell the legend, though, as a feature production and his firsthand, deeply appreciative knowledge of the real Munro shines through. Hopkins in his turn, translates the director’s knowledge and personal love for the project into one of his best and most generous performances ever. How often do we get to see Sir Anthony Hopkins throw back his head and laugh with what can only be described as, ah, guileless abandonment? Honestly, you’ll have no choice but to like this guy, for all his eccentricities that probably no longer have a place in the modern world.
Burt habitually got up at the crack of dawn to work on and then let rip his Indian Scout engine. He lived alone in a tiny garage furnished only with a narrow bed and he literally lived/breathed motor oil and engine parts. Having no funds apart from his pension, he would fashion gadgets out of discarded home appliances, drain pipes, anything. One of the shelves against the wall served as a makeshift shrine on which he placed his inventions, and the sign over it said: “offerings to the god of speed.”
Burt had a bad heart and prostate problems, but none of it deterred him from racing with local Marlon Brando wannabees young enough to be his grandchildren, or taking his lady friend, Fran (Annie Whittle), to a dance and inviting her back to the garage for the night. Or for that matter, from boarding a cargo ship to the United States (he paid for the passage by working as a cook) and living out his dream of competing in the Speed Week races.
With no sponsor and hardly any cash, Burt made his way from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City in a sputtering, secondhand Chevy, which doubled as his sleeping quarter, popping nitro pills brought out from New Zealand and homemade medication (“ground-up dogs’ balls!”) for his ailing prostate, given to him by a kindly Native American. By the time he reaches Salt Lake City, Burt has racked up quite a number of miles and some good friends, including a widow (Diane Ladd) who gives him a night’s lodging and tells him to “come back soon, cuz I sure could use a little more lovin’!”
Once in Salt Lake he astounded the other contestants by showing up in his wedding-suit jacket (“where’s your fire suit? your parachute?”), his trouser hems tucked into his socks in lieu of boots. When his Indian got up to 160 kph, the muffler burned right into his leg.
“The World’s Fastest Indian” isn’t about age, but part of its message is it’s never too late to pursue your dreams, or something like that. Actually, in the movie, Burt says it better: “I may have wrinkles on my face, but inside I’m 18 years old.” And the sight of Anthony Hopkins tearing through the desert, gritting his teeth in the wind with nothing but faulty goggles and a tiny, ratty old helmet for protection will make you believe it, too.