Movie review in the Friday, March 5 Oregonian....
Make no mistake -- as an adventure film, "Hidalgo" has its problems. But Mortensen lends his great big heart to nearly every scene, playing the Aragorn-esque Frank T. Hopkins -- a real-life dispatch rider who reputedly raced his horse across the Arabian Desert in the 1890s. And the movie also serves as a nicotine patch for addicts mourning the end of the "Rings" trilogy.
Need proof? See if "Hidalgo"'s storyline sounds in any way familiar: Scrappy, angst-ridden guy (Mortensen) shuns his heritage -- until he suddenly finds himself on a long-distance quest set against epic scenery. During said quest, he gets mixed up with a daughter of royalty, kills a few faceless bad guys, sings mournful songs in a non-English dialect, and even wears a culturally significant little necklace. Oh, and he rides a scrappy horse brimming with "personality."
It's been a good year for movies about scrappy horses brimming with "personality"; one colleague jokingly refers to "Hidalgo" as "Sandbiscuit." TJ -- the horse who plays Frank's Mustang, Hidalgo -- gets the movie's first close-up, and he instantly earns the right to have a movie named after him. He gives the camera this sidelong, eye-rolling glare that says nothing so much as "What have you gotten me into now?" He gives that look a lot in "Hidalgo," as Hopkins dodges bullets, sandstorms, locusts and leopards -- and it's so bloody charming that you almost forget that galloping across a blazing desert is actually kind of a cruel thing to force on a horse. There's a certain sub-genre of horse fiction aimed squarely at 'tween-aged girls -- and TJ and the artfully smudged Viggo should reduce that audience to quivering mounds of jelly.
That said, the movie's got issues. The supporting cast of fellow racers and hangers-on is way too big to keep track of -- and some of the actors play their roles too broadly for "Hidalgo" to succeed as the gorgeous epic it longs to be. Also, while director and former storyboard artist Joe Johnston ("Jurassic Park III ") has a real knack for camera placement, the relentless Marlboro-ad cinematography leaves you wondering if the entire horse race took place against sunrises and sunsets.
More troubling, "Hidalgo" can't quite decide exactly what kind of adventure film it wants to be -- every time the story starts settling into a certain narrative rhythm, it shifts gears like an overcaffeinated Student Ed driver. The movie introduces us to Hopkins during a surprisingly harsh recreation of the Wounded Knee massacre that wouldn't be out of place in "Dances with Wolves." Then, just as suddenly, we're summoned to the Middle East, where the sun-dappled race initially looks like it might take on the poetic tones of 1979's "The Black Stallion." Except that the filmmakers suddenly decide that sun-dappled poetry is kind of boring -- so we meet an evil nephew (Silas Carson) of a noble sheik (Omar Sharif) who's dead-set on sabotaging the race and stealing the sheik's daughter (Zuleikha Robinson). When it's good, this final phase of the story plays like "Indiana Jones"; when it's not -- like when the sheik's daughter does that lame movie-foreigner thing where she never uses contractions in her sentences -- it's more like " Young Indiana Jones."
That said, Viggo caulks most of the narrative cracks -- his leading-man turn eases those pesky Aragorn cravings and lends "Hidalgo" way more soul than it deserves. He's so good you even forgive the film its more complicated sins: There's been some flak from a group called the Long Riders' Guild, charging that the real-life Hopkins embellished most of his autobiography. But really -- can anyone watch Hopkins fight off evil jungle cats in the middle of the desert and not think this is a tall tale, no matter what the film's advertising tells us?
(133 minutes; Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and some mild innuendo) Grade: B