[Screen It]


(2004) (Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: A late 19th century American cowboy must deal with the harsh conditions and treachery of his opponents and others as he and his mixed breed mustang participate in a grueling 3,000 mile race across the Arabian Desert.
It's 1890 and former cavalry man Frank T. Hopkins (VIGGO MORTENSEN) and his trusty mustang Hidalgo are performers at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Hiding behind that and many a drink, Frank is still reeling from indirectly being responsible for an American Indian massacre at Wounded Knee Creek some eight months earlier.

Yet, Frank's reputation as a champion long-distance horseback racer has garnered the attention of Arabian Sheikh Riyadh (OMAR SHARIF) who's enamored with America's Old West. His emissary, Aziz (ADAM ALEXI-MALLE), informs Frank that the Sheikh wants him to be the first foreigner to participate in the 3,000 mile "Ocean of Fire" race across the Arabian Desert.

It's not long before Frank's halfway around the world where he meets the Sheikh and his highly spirited daughter, Jazira (ZULEIKHA ROBINSON), who isn't happy that being female means her life is already predetermined for her. Then there's Lady Anne Davenport (LOUISE LOMBARD), an aristocrat from a long line of horse breeders who wants to dip into the genetic pool of the purebred Arabian stallions, and Katib (SILAS CARSON), the Sheikh's nephew who wants to get his hands on the family's horse breeding papers.

Frank is informed that most of the racers and their rides won't even come close to reaching the finish line. Nevertheless, he and Hidalgo set out to win. As they slowly make their way toward the finish line, they must not only contend with the harsh terrain and elements, but also the treachery and disdain of the other riders, such as Prince Bin Al Reeh (SAID TAGHMAOUI) -- who look down on the American and his mixed breed horse - as well as various other distractions.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I realize I may be splitting fine semantic hairs, but there's a substantial difference between the phrase "inspired by" and "based on" when it comes to movie adaptations of real life people and their exploits. Such is the case with "Hidalgo," an old-fashioned style action epic that's taken the latter description in labeling its big screen look at the life of Frank T. Hopkins.

An American cowboy who supposedly participated in a grueling cross-Arabian race in the 1890s, Hopkins wrote of that and various other adventures. Yet, historians and others have questioned the validity of them due to lack of corroborative evidence or testimonials.

In fact, while watching the film that's been directed by Joe Johnston ("Jurassic Park III," "October Sky") from a script by John Fusco ("Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," "Thunderheart"), it's not hard to get the feeling that we're being fed what's essentially just a bunch of tall tales. Truth in advertising aside, it really isn't a big deal and certainly wouldn't be the first time the "facts" were fabricated or enhanced.

Yet, that very disparity between "reality" and how the film changes from an epic horse race into what becomes a period action/adventure flick (that would make Indiana Jones do a double-take) becomes a bit of a distraction.

What won't be disputed, however, thanks to all of the contemporary witnesses and the media to back it up, are the film's similarities to many other pictures, both recent and old. What many will immediately notice is the striking resemblance to the beginning of "The Last Samurai."

In both, "lost" men deal with grief through alcohol while performing in public spectacles before traveling to a foreign land. It's there that they find personal redemption while showing how late 19th century white men take care of business, all while dealing with a foreign leader fascinated with the Old West.

"Lawrence of Arabia" will also come to mind for some, what with all of the sand and one particular star, while others will likely feel they're also watching excerpts from the "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Mummy" and/or any number of old, cliffhanger type films.

Of course, this isn't the first and certainly won't be the last film to borrow, steal or just possess striking similarities to previous efforts. The problem is that the resultant finished product feels like a hodgepodge of previously seen elements rather than a cohesive whole. And that only exacerbates the experience of being in the presence of a tall tale teller who strays off the main path into various tangents before getting back to the story at hand.

Not being familiar with Hopkins' accounts of his exploits, I don't know if that wandering approach is his or that of the filmmakers taking some or a great deal of artistic license with the story. Whatever the case, film touches upon an Indian massacre, Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, foreign slavery, sheikhs, an "Aladdin" type princess who thinks like a 21st century liberated young woman, a kidnapping and rescue, the pivotal race and more.

While a few of those subplots have some fun and/or entertaining popcorn style moments, it's the race that is and obviously should be the most compelling. Alas, but to be expected, only the beginning and end actually showcase the speedy aspect of that noun, since no one would believe a full-out sprint for 3,000 miles.

Nevertheless, such scenes look terrific thanks to the work of cinematographer Shelly Johnson ("The Last Castle," "Jurassic Park III") who captures the look and feel of the foreboding and unforgiving desert (although some of the added special effects look as if they needed more money to achieve photo realism).

He also doesn't do a bad job with lead actor Viggo Mortensen ("A Walk on the Moon," the "Lord of the Ring" films) for those longing for King Aragorn looking like a scruffy cowboy. The actor is decent and mostly believable but oddly not fabulous playing the adventuresome cowboy.

What will likely have other viewers salivating is the thought of Omar Sharif ("Doctor Zhivago," "Funny Girl") returning to the desert some 40 years after "Lawrence." While not quite up there with that prior performance, he's otherwise good in the role and brings a certain dignity to his character.

Zuleikha Robinson ("Timecode") is striking playing his daughter, but her character's liberated and - to no one's surprise - "Disneyfied" attitude and behavior feels incongruous with the rest of the period picture. Louise Lombard ("Gold in the Streets," "After the Rain"), Said Taghmaoui ("The Good Thief," "Three Kings") and Silas Carson (the latest "Star Wars" film) appear in various supporting roles and are okay, but can't do a lot with their characters.

Complaints and criticisms aside, the film is fairly easy to watch and does contain some decent moments in an old-fashioned popcorn way. It's just too bad that the filmmakers felt the need - much like an overly verbose and hyped up storyteller - to try to cram so many elements, some of them more congruous and/or truthful than others, into their film. As a result, "Hidalgo" rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 2, 2004 / Posted March 5, 2004

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