Based on a supposedly true story, Hidalgo is a multicultural mishmash in which a disillusioned American soldier accidentally finds himself trapped in a hostile foreign society, only to ultimately earn the natives’ admiration through his conviction, gallantry, and knack for kicking ass. In other words, it’s The Last Samurai except that proud Arabs substitute for the dignified Japanese, and our rugged hero is given a stout, mixed-blood equine sidekick named Hidalgo. Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a famous long-distance horse racer and dutiful Pony Express courier, is grief-stricken by his unwitting role in the slaughter of a Sioux tribe at Wounded Knee in 1890. In response, the infidel retreats to a life of drinking and debasement working as a novelty act for Buffalo Bill Cody’s (J.K. Simmons) traveling Wild West extravaganza. Angered by Buffalo Bill’s claim that Hopkins is the greatest long-distance rider in the world, representatives of horse-breeding Arabian Sheikh Riyadh (a credibly magisterial Omar Sharif) deliver an ultimatum: drop the moniker, or prove your mettle in “The Ocean of Fire,” a 3,000-mile marathon race across the Arabian desert. The Arabs are prejudiced and priggish, frightened of Hidalgo knocking up one of their beloved horses, and intent on keeping women—namely, the Sheikh’s feminist daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson)—docile and invisible. None of this intolerance sits well with the half-Native American Hopkins. When he’s not fending off the advances of devious horse connoisseur Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard) or navigating the traps set by his cutthroat Bedouin competition during the race, Hopkins is busy convincing the Arabs (and, in the process, himself) to embrace cultural diversity, individualism, and self-determination. In the hands of Spielberg protégé Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Jurassic Park 3), such well-intentioned but clumsily executed themes complement a few old-fashioned swashbuckling set pieces, which combine the pulpy playfulness of Indiana Jones (a daring gunfight rescue mission) with plagiarized special effects from The Mummy and Gladiator (a ferocious sand storm, CGI cheetahs). One can feel Johnston straining for Lawrence of Arabia cred through Shelly Johnson’s elegant but slow-mo congested cinematography and James Newton Howard’s generically inspirational score. Unfortunately for them, squishy moralizing and scenic rotund sand dunes do not an epic make. As for Mortensen, the Lord of the Rings hunk exhibits an unassuming poise that helps counteract the film’s efforts to transform the jockey into legend. But—as strange as this may sound—the actor has zero chemistry with Hidalgo, a nondescript peripheral presence only asked to periodically address Mortensen with a few well-timed neighs or disparaging looks over his shoulder. For a film named Hidalgo, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for more than this Mr. Ed retread.
- Joe Johnston
- John Fusco
- Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson, Adam Alexi-Malle, Louise Lombard, Said Taghmaoui, Adoni Maropis
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