- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Watching Viggo Mortensen bond with his horse in “Hidalgo,” you’d think he’d rather spend the night grooming its mane than romancing a lovely lady.

Such is the connection between man and beast at the heart of “Hidalgo,” based on the true story of an upstart American who triumphs in a horse race across Arabia.

Set in 1890, “Hidalgo” should have steeped itself in its historical background. Instead, it dilutes the story’s credibility by pandering to modern mores.

Frank Hopkins (Mr. Mortensen, proving his heroic mien in “The Lord of the Rings” was no fluke) and his horse, Hidalgo, are wasting away their days as distance riders in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Mr. Hopkins formerly served in the U.S. military, but he saw too much horror at the Wounded Knee massacre and left the service a broken man.

An emissary of a Bedouin horse breeder sees the show and contests Mr. Hopkins’ label as the world’s greatest long-distance rider. A challenge is made for the real deal, the Oceans of Fire race across 3,000 miles of Arabian territory.

With little keeping him at home, the American takes the challenge, unaware that no non-Arab had ever won the race. Runners-up are lucky to escape with their lives, given the brutal terrain.

Getting into the race turns out to be the easy part.

His cowboy status earns him scorn from his fellow riders, who cast dismissive glances at his mustang mount. And a bored horse breeder (Louise Lombard) finds great sport in playing with Mr. Hopkins’ mind.

Naturally, the laconic horseman can’t be bought or otherwise turned away from his new quest.

The camera flat-out loves Mr. Mortensen. The actor’s face is an embarrassment of physical riches, from his sculpted cheekbones to a dimpled chin perfectly suited for big-screen magnification.

If only his Frank Hopkins had some flaws to make him more compelling.

The actor’s earthy presence also can’t save the maladroit comic pieces scattered throughout “Hidalgo.” They seem as though they’re dropped in to amuse those who might be scared off by a so-called “serious” epic.

We also learn precious little about why Mr. Hopkins and his trusty steed are such gifted distance riders. We’ll take it at face value that both he and his horse have more heart and stamina than the opposition, but the story would have gained depth and believability from a depiction of their specific skills.

All we see is him ride, rest and water his horse ad nauseam.

The race itself begins quickly but gets sidetracked often, including a forced subplot involving a kidnap rescue.

Director Joe Johnston (“Jumanji,” “The Rocketeer”) is best known for his breezy, escapist fare, and while he broadens his vistas here to include breathtaking scenery, he hasn’t found a way to get to the heart of a man mid-redemption.

**

WHAT: “Hidalgo”

RATING: PG-13 (adventure violence and mild sexual innuendo)

CREDITS: Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by John Fusco. Cinematography by Shelly Johnson. Original music by James Howard.

RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes

WEB SITE: hidalgo.movies.go.com/main.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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