I'm ashamed to admit that (like many Americans) I haven't traveled much farther outside the bounds of my country than, say, Canada. As a result, my only "experience" with most other cultures has been through movies and television. And so my impression of New Zealanders is that they are of the Crocodile Dundee variety -- a healthy, forthright, and quite competitive bunch.
New Zealand legend Burt Munro seems to typify that blustery, good-natured competitive spirit perfectly. In 1967, (at the age of 68), he self-modified a 40 year-old Indian motorcycle and rode it to break the world motorcycle land speed record -- a record which still stands today. And while his exploits may not be as well-known to those of us here in the States, in the land of Kiwi he's a real-life Rocky Balboa, known for living life the way he raced -- with the pedal all the way to the floor, living deep and sucking out the marrow of every moment.
New Zealand native Roger Donaldson and Sir Anthony Hopkins have made a wonderful film out of Munro's story in 'The World's Fastest Indian.' It was a project that was a labor of love for Donaldson, who had spent the past three decades trying to bring the story to the screen. The film could have easily turned Munro into a cliche, or degenerated his story into a series of fist-pumping, melodramatic scenes out of a bad Hollywood biopic, but instead, Donaldson -- himself a man with a dream -- wisely focuses entirely on Munro's journey.
'The World's Fastest Indian' is a story in three parts. In the first part, Munro discovers his love for his rebuilt 1920 motorbike and becomes obsessed with taking it all the way to America to clock its speed at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah -- ultimately he will mortgage his land just to barely make the trip. The wonderful central portion of the film focuses on his journey to the U.S., and the surprising cast of diverse characters he meets along the way. Finally, the third and final section focuses on Munro's attempt to break the world record in Utah. While the climax is a foregone conclusion, the film still manages to generate a surprising amount of nail-biting tension.
Hopkins has stated several times that he feels 'Indian' is his greatest performance (topping even his Oscar-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter in 'The Silence of the Lambs'), and it is hard to argue with him. Here, Hopkins somehow manages to craft a performance that is kind of a cross between Albert Einstein and Doc from the 'Back to the Future' movies, yet he is never "zany," setting aside the usual arm-waving mannerisms a lesser actor might have resorted to.
That 'The World's Fastest Indian' has been all but ignored in America is tragic, but not entirely surprising. I've heard the film described as both "a chick flick for guys" and "'Cool Runnings' for the geriatric set," but either does it justice. Instead, it's a wonderfully-realized biography, an inspirational underdog story, and a road movie that depicts a mingling of cultures that is both authentic and winning. From the Americans at Salt Lake, who are an eccentric but believable community of speed freaks, to the natural rhythms of Munro's daily life back home, Donaldson and Hopkins don't take a single wrong step.
Technical specs for 'The World's Fastest Indian' are somewhat unusual. The film was shot in the Super35 format, and exhibited theatrically at 2.35:1, but director Roger Donaldson decided to "open up the matte" for the film's video release to 1.78:1. So what we are getting here is more information on the top and bottom and a bit less on the sides. This will undoubtedly rankle some. Personally, I love the wide 2.35:1 frame, but I am not going to argue with the filmmaker. Also, the compositions here look pleasing to me, and I was never distracted by any apparent cropping or constraining of the image.
Interestingly, this Blu-ray release differs slightly from its HD DVD counterpart, which we reviewed earlier. Magnolia opted to go 1080p/MPEG-2 for Blu-ray, instead of VC-1 (which they used on HD DVD). The results are quite comparable, really -- if nothing else, it makes for an interesting assessment of the differences (or lack of them) between the two codecs.
First, the basics. The source is in great shape. There is not a blemish or dropout to be found, and blacks are pure and deep. Colors have a slightly muted quality to them, as if the film was largely shot on overcast days, but it appears intentional. Otherwise, hues have a nice and warm feel, with very stable saturation and accurate fleshtones. I was also thankful that the film has not been over-pumped. Contrast looks a bit crushed in the dark areas and slightly dulled near the high-end, which gives it extra pop yet whites don't bloom. Detail still holds up nicely, and the image retains an often wonderful and pleasing sense of depth and three-dimensionality.
Major compression artifacts, such as macroblocking and posterization, are also not a problem. However, the increased grain common to the Super35 format does appear to exacerbate video noise -- most notably in the expansive gray skies and the darkest shadows, which sometimes appear a bit jumpy. In fact, it can be slightly excessive at times. This is the only major gripe marring an otherwise slick presentation.
As for how the Blu-ray stacks up versus the HD DVD, differences are hardly apparent. Only flipping back and forth -- over and over -- revealed any unique qualities. The Blu-ray looked slightly sharper, but also harder. For example, there is a shot where Anthony Hopkins crashes his Indian, and as he gets up and out of the vehicle, the contrast in the reflections seemed a bit crisper on the Blu-ray. The trade-off here is that other aspects of the transfer can also look harsher, such as grain. Again, the difference is incredibly slight, and one is not necessarily better than the other -- just different. Without making direct comparisons to the master, there is no way to know which is more "accurate." And allowing for differences in hardware, I have to rate both the Blu-ray and HD DVD transfers as a wash.
Magnolia continues to deliver the goods on this Blu-ray, with a full-blown DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track, along with a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 option. This creates a little bit of a problem, at least compared to the HD DVD version, which included a Dolby TrueHD track. Since current Blu-ray hardware does not support decoding of the full DTS-HD track, only its 1.5mbps DTS "core," the audio potential of this Blu-ray disc remains untapped. Of course, I fully expect that when DTS-HD decoding becomes available, this track will easily match the TrueHD version. Granted, the film's sound design is relatively restrained during non-racing scenes, so in all honesty, even a direct compare of multiple scenes revealed little added oomph to the Dolby TrueHD track. (I'm also not going to deduct points from the audio rating here, as to not fault the software for what is, currently, a hardware issue.)
In terms of the master itself, surround use is sparing. It only really exerts itself whenever an engine is revving, and even then reserved for well-modulated burst. Dynamic range feels a bit more wide and expansive, and in the race scenes, low bass has a clearly superior heft. Otherwise, the track remains largely front heavy. Dialogue reproduction is very strong, though, with even Anthony Hopkins deep, low voice always clear and intelligible. J. Peter Robinson's simple but evocative score is also nicely rendered, with a very warm and pleasing tone to his melancholy piano and string arrangements. 'The World's Fastest Indian' won't blow you out of your chair, but it's nonetheless a very subtle, effective soundtrack.
The extras are quite nice, too. Though a very well-rounded package, the highlight supplement is 'Offerings to the Gods of Speed,' a 1971 documentary on the real-life Burt Munro. Directed by Roger Donaldson (who would go on to direct 'The World's Fastest Indian' 35 years later), this doc features interviews with Munro, his friends, family, and other people moved by his diligence in achieving his dream. What's immediately evident in watching footage of the real Burt Munro is how well Hopkins nailed him in his portrayal. The resemblance is, at times, uncanny -- like Hopkins in the movie, Munro is enthusiastic and charismatic, and he clearly really did love his 1920 Indian, which gives this charming, insightful 30-minute doc a true poignancy.
Next we have a separate 45-minute doc, "The Making of 'The World's Fastest Indian.'" It's a very good behind-the-scenes look, featuring on-set "video diary"-esque footage and interviews with all the principals. Hopkins has come to say that 'Indian' was his greatest experience as an actor, and in a career spanning decades, knighthood and a boatload of awards, that is really saying something. The spirit and enthusiasm on the set is obvious, so perhaps here is one of those rare cases where all the back-patting and upbeat comments are not merely promotional fluff. Don't let the nondescript title of this one fool you -- it's a great little doc.
Next we have a collection of four Deleted Scenes, all presented in 1080p video (as is the making-of doc). The scenes are fine, all featuring Munro/Hopkins (being his lovably ornery old self). There is also a nice moment between Burt and Tina, where he tries to convince here not to have a sex change. There is no optional commentary or any other contextual info for the scenes, and they only total less than five minutes.
And then there's Donaldson's solo screen-specific audio commentary. Donaldson covers all the expected basics, and it certainly helps that he directed the aforementioned documentary 'Offerings to the Gods of Speed' over 35 years ago, which adds extra layers of insight as he details what became an obsession to turn the story into a full-length feature film. However, there is some redundancy here -- some of the stories are the same as in 'Offerings,' not to mention the film's making-of doc. This track really isn't essential, unless you skip the video material, which I don't recommend. But hey, I'm not going to complain about too many extras.
Rounding out the disc's supplements package is a short promo for Munro's hometown of Invercargill, New Zealand, plus the film's original Theatrical Trailer, also in 1080p video.
'The World's Fastest Indian' is a wonderful little film, and a true sleeper (at least for American audiences). It also features what may be Anthony Hopkins finest performance (sorry, Hannibal Lecter!). This Blu-ray release is the perfect way to introduce yourself to such an overlooked gem. The transfer and DTS-HD track are really quite good, and the supplemental package is excellent as well. Though this is only the first Magnolia Blu-ray title I've reviewed, with 'The World's Fastest Indian,' the little indie studio that could proves they can easily hold their own with the big boys.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.