From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, March 15, 2004

Movie Review: Hidalgo

Hidalgo (2004) Director - Joe Johnston; Starring - Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Louise Lombard, Zuleikha Robinson; Screenplay - John Fusco; Rated PG13 for violence, and some very limited innuendo/sexual situations.

The film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner lays out the story of a misfit youth who gets sentenced to a reformatory school for boys, and is put on the track team to try and give him some focus and direction. In the time he has on long runs, he finds the solitude facilitates his ability to reflect on his life, see some of the mistakes he's made along the way, and find a new satisfaction with who he is and what he wants to do with the time he has in front of him. There's a similar dynamic at work in Disney's latest offering Hidalgo, the tale of a long distance horseman named Frank T. Hopkins and his trusty mustang.

So what is Hidalgo besides the name of a horse?
Though there is now some question as to whether the legends surrounding Hopkins have any basis in fact, the story crafted around Hopkins, real or imagined, has the potential to be a very positive and uplifting story.

Hopkins and Hidalgo are a legendary riding duo in the late 1800s. They have competed in multiple long distance races and never been bested. Because of their joint skills at covering great distances, Hopkins and Hidalgo are also a favored courier duo of the US Government. However, when Hopkins comes to realize that one courier job he takes directly results in the Massacre at Wounded Knee, he has a "there but for the grace of God go I" kind of moment. He and Hidalgo give up their long distance travels in favor of performing as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Hopkins also tries to drown what he has seen in the bottom of a whiskey bottle.

His shot at redemption comes in the form of a challenge issued by an Arab Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif, sadly looking every day of his 72 years of age and more). The Sheikh has a world class thoroughbred stallion who will be competing in a legendary 3,000 mile race across the Arabian desert. As Hopkins and Hidalgo are touted across America as the greatest long distance riding team in the world, the Sheikh feels it is necessary to show up the infidel and his mixed breed horse. Hopkins decides that he and Hidalgo have one more race left in them.

So what does this horse tale have going for it?

Well obviously the pros have to start with Mortensen. Though the film is named for the horse, it's Hopkins who were are really meant to sympathize with. Mortensen has already established himself as potentially the next great action hero with his turn as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And his skill as an actor and presence as a film hero are both in good form here. Though some of the dialogue he is given is pretty awful (there's a comment about "greener pastures" and a story about a 3 legged colt that are pretty cringe inducing), he makes as much hay as he can out of what he has to work with. He gives Hopkins as much depth as he can have in a film as formula as this one. There's a secret Hopkins wrestles with throughout the first half of the film, and Mortensen does a good job of making you understand why he's haunted by it once it comes out.

And kudos have to be handed out to the horse. I believe it was W.C. Fields who said he would never work with children or animals. But this animal might have made him sing a different tune. Hidalgo gives you everything you could want out of a horse. He's a pretty animal, with some interesting coloration. And as animal actors go he is a bit of a ham, but you don't mind all that much. The interaction between Mortensen and Hidalgo call to mind a line from Silverado, when Kevin Kline is asked if he can prove a horse belongs to him. He turns to the questioner and asks "Can't you see this horse loves me?" Hopkins would be able to make the same kind of statement about his steed.

Well, I'd hope they work well together. What about the rest of the herd?
That's a bit more questionable. As I said earlier, some of the dialogue is just awful. There was a large group sitting on the row behind me that were making smart ass cracks during the trailers, and I was worried they were going to do a Mr Sinus treatment during the movie. But there were parts where I think it might have improved on what I was hearing during the movie.

And some of the casting is questionable in my mind. Poor Omar Sharif. Every time he flashes this gap toothed grin during his scenes I remember thinking 1) This is the "heartthrob" from Dr. Zhivago? And 2) I guess the pro bridge circuit just don't pay too well. I also had to wonder about casting JK Simmons from Law & Order and Oz as Buffalo Bill. It was just too hard for me to get the image of him in Oz out of my head as he was MCing his Wild West Show. The two female leads were largely forgettable. Louise Lombard has the British aristocrat thing down ok, but she doesn't bring much to the table, even when her character's role in the proceedings creates a twist about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way into the picture.

Lastly, let's be honest. There's nothing really all that original in the story here. If Rocky Balboa had four legs, a tail, and whinnied, he'd be Hidalgo, with Viggo playing the Burgess Meridith "Micky" role in support (I almost expect Hopkins to tell Hidalgo he's going to "...piss lightning" and "crap thunder.") We know where this story is going to take us, and we know how it's going to end, even before the opening credits.

Well then, if it's that predictable, why would we give this nag a chance?
Because predictable or not, there's still some fun to be had with the movie. Mortensen and Hidalgo are genuinely fun together. There's some decent action sequences, and the cinematography during some of the desert shots that bridge us from one action sequence to the next are nice and look good on the big screen. It's not Lawrence of Arabia, but it ain't that bad either.

And formula or not, I know that there are some people who like something safe in their films. Familiarity is the reason why McDonald's has sold billions and billions of hamburgers. They don't change, and people know exactly what they're gonna get out of them. And that's what they're looking for. And if you're going to go see something that treads familiar territory, you could do much much worse than this. I know that sounds like damning it with faint praise, and that's not my intention. It really was an enjoyable flick. I came out of the movie, and I felt pretty good about it. That's more than I can say for some other movies I've seen this year.

So we shouldn't look this gift horse in the mouth?
I think that if you're looking for something light to enjoy on a weekend afternoon with the family, or maybe have your folks in from out of town, this movie is at least as good as anything else you could see at the local Googaplex. Just enjoy the ride, don't take it too seriously, and you'll have a good time.