2-1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Hidalgo," based on the story of distance rider Frank Hopkins and his legendary mustang Hidalgo, who competed in the Ocean of Fire, a dangerous survival race in the Arabian desert, is a sometimes stirring, sometimes preposterous movie.
Filled with spectacular scenery and howling nonsense, it's a would-be mix of "Seabiscuit" and "Lawrence of Arabia" that turns into something closer to "The Mummy" on horseback.
The actual event must have been fascinating. It's a 3,000-mile race across the desert in which participants, usually champion Bedouin riders on purebred Arabian horses, routinely died before the finish line. Hopkins, the Old West's most famous distance racer, and his unbeatable mustang were the first American team invited. And the film of their exploits, as directed by Joe Johnston ("October Sky," "Jumanji"), written by horse expert John Fusco ("Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron") and beautifully shot on some of the spectacular Moroccan desert locations that backdropped "Lawrence of Arabia" 42 years ago, is often fun to watch.
Johnston has a sweeping visual sense and a real love of the rousing old movie clichés. The racing sequences themselves are exciting. Johnston also has "Lawrence" co-star Omar Sharif as the crusty but lovable Sheikh Riyadh. Playing hero Frank is Viggo Mortensen of "Lord of the Rings," a laconic star who can believably manage the old Gary Cooper noble cowboy routine.
Despite all the points in its favor, most of "Hidalgo" feels about as real as the dime-novel Westerns the sheikh is seen constantly reading, or as real as the hokey Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West show Frank drunkenly joins in this movie's first scenes. "Hidalgo" keeps oscillating between fairly good scenes and howlers. Hopkins and Hidalgo were both supposedly past their prime when they entered the race, making them lovable underdogs.
Amid the movie's nonstop cliffhangers and perils, some of the other characters are fairly engaging, if unlikely, too. Zuleikha Robinson is Riyadh's daughter, the feisty desert rose Jazira. Louise Lombard is the haughty horse owner Lady Davenport (with an uncredited Malcolm McDowell popping in and out briefly as her husband). A very photogenic painted stallion named T.J., aided by four stunt-double horses, does a smashing job as Hidalgo. T.J.'s reactions to his master's endless difficulties are, along with the antics of Frank's wily servant, the movie's major source of comic relief.
Still, even though "Hidalgo" is described as a real story based on Hopkins' published memoirs - allegedly the product of 12 years of research by writer Fusco - it ends up turning what may have been a fascinating slice of Western history into grand baloney.
This isn't a movie you can take seriously for very long, and it isn't tongue in cheek or funny enough to play as a send-up. But it's often right at the edge. "Hidalgo" is heavily populated with sneering villains like Riyadh's incorrigible nephew Katib, campy cameos from Buffalo Bill (J.K. Simmons) and Annie Oakley (Elizabeth Berridge), waterhole shootouts, huge computerized sandstorms that look like a desert "Perfect Storm," and, in one loony sequence, with a swarm of locusts that descends on Frank and Hidalgo like an outtake from "The Good Earth."
As if all that weren't enough, the film is interrupted in mid-race by a ridiculous 25-minute sequence in which Jazira is kidnapped and Frank and Hidalgo ride to her rescue, assisted by dazzling swordsmen and karate experts.
You'd like to believe Johnston and Fusco only did that scene with a studio gun to their heads; the intended action showpiece acts as a killer of suspended disbelief. How seriously can you take a race where the horse and rider suddenly drop out for sword fights, gun battles and Saturday-serial rescues of damsels in distress? After that kidnap scene, the last ambush on poor Hidalgo - complete with riflemen, deadly sand traps and a pair of attack leopards - seems almost plausible.
I love horses and a lot of horse movies, including some of the silly ones, and I have to admit that the last half hour of "Hidalgo," its best sustained section, got to me, against my better judgment. But this movie, like too many other big studio spectacles, is far too tolerant of cliches and too seduced by its own special effects and battle scenes. Wouldn't it have made more horse sense to stick to the race?
Directed by Joe Johnston; written by John Fusco; photographed by Shelly Johnson; edited by Robert Dalva; production designed by Barry Robison; music by James Newton Howard; produced by Casey Silver. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday, March 5. Running time: 2:16. MPAA rating: PG-13 (adventure violence, some innuendo).
Frank Hopkins - Viggo Mortensen
Jazira - Zuleikha Robinson
Sheikh Riyadh - Omar Sharif
Lady Anne Davenport - Louise Lombard
Aziz - Adam Alexi-Malle
Prince Bin Al Reeh - Said Taghmaoui