Like most movies about men and horses, "Hidalgo" spares no expense in matters of corniness. Set in the 1890s, it's sort of a throwback movie, executed with the boyish kick of dusty old cowboy matinees. "Sort of" because the movie makes an admirable attempt to create non-American characters that function independently of the movie's hero, one Frank T. Hopkins.
In his first star vehicle since "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Viggo Mortensen plays Hopkins. The actor is such a vigorous horseman that his use of a stunt double might never cross your mind. But his performance is wooden enough to make you think he'd been cast as a lumberjack.
The driving action in "Hidalgo" is a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert, but the movie, which is based on Hopkins's tall tale of a life, strives to be a lot more. For starters, Hopkins is halfSioux, but he's been passing for a white guy, and the Indian lives he took at Wounded Knee have left him with a mean identity hangover.
In the years that follow, he and his spotted mustang Hidalgo join Buffalo Bill's traveling rodeo show, which also features Bill Cody (J.K. Simmons) and Annie Oakley (Elizabeth Berridge). In their hair and garish makeup, they look like clowns who've come down with consumption. But Hopkins, falling off Hidalgo in drunken oblivion, is still the crowd favorite.
Annoyed that Hopkins is brandishing Hidalgo as the world's best endurance horse, Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) wants the horseman to put up or shut up, more or less, and pay the fee to enter the Great Horse Race of the Bedouin. If he beats the sheik's unbeatable Al-Hattal, there is glory (for no non-Arab has ever entered) and a huge cash prize.
Hopkins consults with his mentor Chief Eagle Horn (Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman) about whether to take the dare, but he's there before you can say "Sandbiscuit." Yet there's so much off-course action along the way to the climactic race that crossing the finish line seems like an afterthought.
In prolonged pit stops, John Fusco's screenplay heats up a broth of Arabian intrigue. Should Al-Hattal win the race, the sheik will give his daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) to his stallion's royal jockey, Prince Bin Al Reeh (Said Taghmaoui), who already has four other wives. Jazira, meanwhile, is tired of hiding her face from men. She's tired of being told she can't ride her beloved Al-Hattal because she's a girl. In other words, she's a script revision away from "International Velvet."
When Jazira is kidnapped (yes, there's more plot), the sheik turns to Hopkins to rescue her. And it's here that the movie gets full of itself, having Mortensen lay down some "Western justice." Still, this side story does produce some nice old-Western, daytime photography by Shelly Johnson.
Fusco also wrote both "Young Guns" movies and the dreary equine fable "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." "Hidalgo" often feels like a rigged collision of the two. Sometimes it's zesty, sometimes it's a draggy bore. The workhorse director Joe Johnston, who made limited boy's-eye-view fantasies "The Rocketeer" and "Jurassic Park III," brings to "Hidalgo" the same B-movie showmanship. The desert here is vast, and he does an adequate job of filling it with computer-enhanced natural disasters and natural wonders. None of the latter include the flat characters.
The Arabs, though, come off reasonably well -- for a big-budget Hollywood production. Much subtitled Arabic is spoken. The word "brigand" is even casually used. And for every cowardly turncoat and heartless killer, we get a more fleshed-out archetype.
It is nice, however, to see the spry and achingly handsome Sharif ruling the desert so many years after "Lawrence of Arabia." The "Lord of the Rings" movies, meanwhile, have done loads for Mortensen's charisma yet zilch for his range. Still a pupil at the Harrison Ford modeling agency, his ugly-pretty face tops out at two expressions: sorrow and surprise. He's an underwhelming movie star but an ideal fellow to run into at a dude ranch.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.