In the 1880s, horse courier and long distance horse racing champion Frank
Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) falls into a depression after witnessing the
slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee. Hiding from himself and others in
Buffalo Bill's Wild West stunt show, Hopkins is summoned by an Arabian sheik (a
majestic Omar Sharif) to come to the Middle-East and compete in the "Ocean of
Fire;" a 3,000 mile horse race featuring competition from only the best steeds
in the land, on a desert terrain that's unbeatable. Armed with his trusty horse
Hidalgo, Hopkins agrees to the race, and begins the fight of his life trying to
best the elements, his fellow riders, and a sheik who doesn't quite trust him.
What filmmaker Joe Johnston is going after with the adventure film "Hidalgo" (IMDb listing) is
a return to the old fashioned appeal of good guys, bad guys, dialog in big
lettering, and adventure the audience can sink their teeth into. Taken
separately, each of those elements are represented wonderfully in "Hidalgo." But
put together in this overlong (130 minutes) motion picture, the event lacks
quite a bit of oomph.
Johnston, a veteran of "Jumanji," the magnificent "The Rocketeer," and the
underrated "Jurassic Park III," obviously understands what it takes to cook up
some high adventure and low-wattage drama. At its core, "Hidalgo" is a gorgeous
picture, captured with David Lean-ish visual diamonds by cinematographer Shelly
Johnson. Movies don't come much prettier than this. The lively action set pieces
are staged with "Indiana Jones" grace and a "Lethal Weapon" body count, which
helps this slow film move. Again, nothing much to gripe about there. It's when
the screenplay by John Fusco ("Spirit") tries to meld these elements with
a convoluted storyline that "Hidalgo" finds its greatest weakness. What opens as
a tale about a dangerous race over an unforgiving landscape soon involves
seductions, treachery, "Doors" style Native American mysticism, genocide,
sandstorms, cheetahs, kidnappings, and even more treachery. It's all too much,
with the film working at its best when it hunkers down and deals with the
hardships of the race. There's a terrific 90 minute movie in "Hidalgo," but the
present length only hints at that possibility.
After ascending into the stratosphere of fame with his role in the "Lord of the
Rings" trilogy, actor Viggo Mortensen saddles up in "Hidalgo" to ride out his
first starring role since the Hobbitt series drew to a close last year.
"Hidalgo" showcases Mortensen as the kind of actor he was before he took on
Aragorn: a poor one. Hiding behind a maddening mumble, Mortensen acts his best
through his eyes, which served him well in the "Rings" films. Unfortunately,
"Hidalgo" requires more than just looking the part. Ten years ago, Kevin Costner
would've knocked this role out of the park, and 20 years back, Harrison Ford
would've made a perfect Frank Hopkins. Mortensen just isn't a strong enough
actor to bring Hopkins to life, even with the simplistic heroic cape the film
has hung on this notorious teller of tall tales.
"Hidalgo" is mounted very broadly, with thick Middle-Eastern, English upper
crust, and American cowboy portraits. This helps sweeten the bitter medicine of
the awful dialog, but it also threatens to turn "Hidalgo" into a cartoon.
Frankly, the film could've benefited from such an idea.
Filmfodder Grade: C