- The legend of Frank T. Hopkins comes to life when Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen, center), one of the greatest riders the American west has ever known, is invited to compete in the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert
* Hildalgo (PG-13)
Seems like every critic and his brother (or sister) has an opinion about the trustworthiness, fidelity and political message of Hidalgo, an old-fashioned screen romp centered on a horse race across the Arabian desert. Based loosely on the true-life adventures of one Frank T. Hopkins, a cowboy who performed in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and who was a famed long-distance rider, Hidalgo has probably been over-hyped by Disney for its truthfulness, but who cares? Methinks critics want a reason to belittle Viggo Mortensen in his first star turn beyond the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They want to politicize anything that dares to breathe the word "Arab." And methinks they doth protest too much.
Hidalgo is a romp that falls somewhere between Seabiscuit and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The title refers to Hopkins' beloved mustang, a feisty little racer with absolute loyalty to his master. Hopkins, as played by Mortensen, is a brooding half-breed (his father was an Army officer who fell in love with a Lakota woman), disillusioned by events he witnessed at Wounded Knee, and floundering as a sideshow cowpoke under Wild Bill. When a spokesperson for an Arabian sheik challenges him to enter "The Ocean of Fire," a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert with a $100,000 purse, he is convinced to take the challenge by a Native American friend who advises him: "You are one who rides far from himself; you are lost."
This kickoff mirrors the beginning of another recent film with a lost-American-finding-himself-in-a-foreign-nation theme, The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise. Whereas that film treats the theme with great gravity, this one finds more levity in the subject. Mortensen's a fish out of water, loping around the tent city awaiting the start of the race -- clad in faded dungarees and spurs, surrounded by men in robes and elaborate head wraps. Watching from the sidelines with great interest is Lady Davenport, a British horse breeder who wants to win the race so that she can breed her purebred Arabian with the great El-Hattal, the Arabian most likely to win. "How good are you on your little Express pony?" Lady Davenport purrs at Hopkins, sizing up his cute cowboy butt with a sly smile.
Presiding over the race is a sheik played with low-key glamour by Omar Sharif. His high-spirited daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) will become the fifth wife of a sleazy prince if El-Hattal wins the race, and she wants none of it. Hopkins befriends the sheik along the way, and the sweet cultural exchange that takes place between Mortensen and Sharif is priceless.
More than anything, Hidalgo is a horse tale. Mortensen and the mustang enjoy an easy rapport, and their journey over mountains of dunes, through sandstorms and across centuries is a pleasure to watch. The film isn't perfect: it's too long by about 20 minutes, could have been better edited for special effects, and throws in a few too many subplots. But director Joe Johnston raises the flag of adventure and delivers on his promise. Billed as a family film, Hildalgo is indeed a good one, but be warned: Some of the violence involving very sharp swords and pointed sticks is quite graphic.
As for critics who are roasting Mortensen for his deadpan delivery, they're dead wrong. Viggo's the real deal, on full display here in a role cut out for him. He's a cowboy, not a swashbuckler, and his low-key performance hints at a quiet nature unfamiliar with its articulate side, a lopsided American hero that viewers won't soon forget.
-- Kathryn Eastburn