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Hidalgo   C

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Joe Johnston
Writer: John Fusco
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson, Adam Alexi-Malle, Louise Lombard, Said Taghmaoui, Adoni Maropis, Elizabeth Berridge.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's hard these days to associate Viggo Mortensen with words like "adequate," "competent," or "workmanlike." His last three films were rather good after all, and while the run obviously couldn't last forever, it's still a shock to see him in more mundane surroundings. Hidalgo attempts to parlay his swashbuckling image into a cowboy-out-of-water western, a sound concept that achieves mixed success at best. Director Joe Johnston possesses a refreshingly straight sense of derring-do, but the results drag too much to let his gee-whiz excitement burst through.

The heart of the story is a 3000-mile race across the Arabian desert, the "Ocean of Fire" which attracts the finest riders on Earth... and swallows more than a few of them whole. Johnston takes great relish in playing up the race's Lawrence of Arabia aspects, with shots of fiery sunsets, sand-swept wastes, and lonely travelers barely visible through the shimmering heat. He even has Omar Sharif on hand, as an imperious Sheik with a long tradition of horse-breeding. His stallions are of the finest stock, bringing him wealth and influence amid the equine-crazy Bedouin. So when he hears about an American long-distance racer -- a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and billed as "the greatest in the world" -- he takes grave offense.

The rider is Frank Hopkins (Mortensen) whose pinto Hidalgo has helped him win scores of American endurance races. The two make a good pair -- Hopkins the tormented product of an Indian mother and a cavalry father, Hidalgo a mixed-breed mustang barely bred to the saddle -- nicely settling into the scrappy misfit stereotype. The horse is actually quite charming, with his rolling eyes and an underplayed intelligence that brims with personality. Rare is the movie animal that can be a legitimate character without becoming smarmy; the one on display here ranks with the best of them. Mortensen has a tougher task. After his grit and steel in The Lord of the Rings, he relaxes quite a bit, playing Hopkins as laid-back and laconic while still trying to convey the pain at his character's heart. It's a tricky balance, and while the actor's charisma is never in doubt, he occasionally becomes too passive to command our attention.

Naturally, they take Sharif's bait -- agreeing to pit their skills against the Ocean of Fire -- and it's off to the Persian Gulf to show up the snobs and rid themselves of some demons. The stage is set for some wonderful pulp adventure, the type of which Johnston has delivered before. Yet somehow, Hidalgo never quite conjures the energy. The urgency that comes with a race movie -- the drama and suspense in seeing our heroes battle against the odds -- gets short-circuited, leaving a lot of dreariness in its wake. The race itself is divided into segments (with Mortensen playing tortoise to the Arabian hares) reducing the pressure to drive the plot forward. Villainous rivals pop up -- some fellow racers, some with bigger fish to fry -- but they never seem concerned with Hopkins, and their efforts to sabotage him feel more like the addendum than the actual film.

Instead, Hidalgo focuses on the hero's conflict with the elements -- the sun, the dust, the locusts and other dangers -- and with a series of subplots that drain the audience far more than they engage them. The landscape shots compete with a lot of ponderous dialogue between Mortensen and the supporting characters... too many for the film to find a focus. Beneath that weight, the central hour really sags, as competing story threads vie for the lead's time, and the standard-issue "find yourself" subtext slowly vanishes beneath the sand. The climax arrives seemingly out of nowhere, launching a frantic chase that tries to make up for the creeping ennui. Without more of rooting interest, we're left goggling at it its arbitrary suddenness. The point of it all has long since ceased to matter.

Johnston does have a knack for quiet touches, and plays upon the differences between American and Arab cultures without undue stereotyping. He also knows how to direct an action scene; the few, precious moments of excitement are quite stirring, and the penultimate fight packs a terrific wallop. Would that the long stretches between them could be more engaging, or the final push less implausible. Both director and star are worth more than we see here; a tighter script might have served their talents properly, and delivered on Hidalgo's popcorn promise. Instead, all we have is a heat-mirage that resembles a better film, and a friendly horse that has to chase it too far. As brilliant as it appears, the long march to the finish line just isn't worth it.

Review published 03.05.2004.

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