On Screen

'Hidalgo': Saddle Up

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2004

A LITTLE BIT of Viggo goes a long way.

That's both a synopsis and a critique of "Hidalgo," a serviceable yet formulaic horse-race flick starring Viggo Mortensen as real-life, late-19th-century Pony Express rider Frank Hopkins. Along with his trusty mustang, Hidalgo, Hopkins -- or so it has been said, for much about the man's life is in dispute -- competed against a field of cutthroat Arab riders, not to mention the elements, in a grueling 3,000-mile race across the Saudi Arabian desert known as the Ocean of Fire. Capitalizing on Mortensen's heroic, larger-than-life appeal, thanks mainly to a little trilogy called "The Lord of the Rings," the film plays out like a brisk, if bumpy, Old Hollywood-style epic.

Following the action, which proceeds at a gallop despite such obstacles as a dust storm, brigands, wild cats, locusts, the threat of castration and dehydration, a detour to rescue a kidnapped princess and general underhandedness, it's easy for a viewer to forget that the movie isn't really about anything, other than the ride itself. The ever-workmanlike Joe "October Sky" Johnston's propulsive, if predictable, direction and Mortensen's crinkly, battered nobility are almost diverting enough in and of themselves.

Unfortunately, screenwriter John Fusco has seen fit to dress up the story with some overly familiar, "Dances With Wolves"-style nonsense about how the part-Indian Hopkins -- a jaded drunk, we are led to believe, since witnessing the massacre at Wounded Knee -- is a lost man in need of finding. At heart, "Hidalgo" is an underdog drama like one of a hundred others. Is there ever any serious question that Hopkins and his mixed-breed horse -- the first considered an infidel by his Islamic opponents, the other a mutt unworthy to run against thoroughbreds -- will redeem themselves in the end, mustering the can-do American spirit that made this mongrel nation great? Of course not.

In movies like this, though, it's never the outcome that's up in the air, but the route that our heroes must take to get to the finish line. Did anyone ever doubt that Batman would be able to find something in his utility belt to escape his latest televised predicament (a can of shark-repellant Batspray, perhaps)? By the same token, just when things look direst for Hopkins, as when he's about to shoot his limp and almost lifeless steed in the head after a debilitating fall, something quasi-miraculous occurs to carry our protagonists -- both the two- and the four-legged variety -- forward.

Sure, it sounds, and likely is, far more implausible than the actual race (if such a race ever took place) really was. And such anachronistic touches as the hard-to-swallow feminism of Hopkins's almost-love interest (Zuleikha Robinson), the feisty daughter of an overprotective sheik (Omar Sharif), are historically suspect. But I'll be gosh-darned if the sound of the wind in Mortensen's dyed-red locks as he races across the sand, and that squint of determination in his dust-caked, gray-green eyes, aren't just diverting enough to turn "Hidalgo" into one rousing, if rote, adventure.

HIDALGO (PG-13, 145 minutes) -- Contains violence, equine euthanasia and some sexual innuendo. Area theaters.

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