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"One potato, two potato....."

© 2004, Touchstone
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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

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