"Hidalgo" marks the second film in as many weeks that has begun with
the subtitle, "Based on a true story." While such an intention is
well and good when being honest, the abysmal "Dirty Dancing: Havana
Nights" did not portray a true story (only its clumsy setting amidst
the Cuban Revolution was an actual event), and neit her does "Hidalgo"
(only the hero, Frank Hopkins, and a few minor characters actually
lived). Why must a film studio—in this case Buena Vista Pictures—mislead
its audience into thinking what they are watching really happened
when it has been confirmed that it did not? Does it give the said
motion picture a larger prestige, and reassure the makers that the
movie they're creating is a worthwhile one? Whatever the case, it
is an increasingly cloying fad that actually achieves nothing aside
from misrepresenting the subject matter and blatantly lying to viewers.
Then again, if it was good enough for "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"...
Standing on its own two feet, "Hidalgo" is a wildly uneven yarn that
plays like a hybrid between a western and a sillier-than-usual "Indiana
Jones" adventure. Directed by Joe Johnston, a usually reliable filmmaker
(1999's "October Sky," 2001's "Jurassic Park III") who underwhelms
this time, the film purports to concern a dangerous 3,000-mile race
across the Arabian desert and the brave Native American and his steadfast
mustang who won it. These sequences are involving and vibrant and
even exciting. They also take up less than an hour of screentime in
an overlong 136-minute movie that bogs itself down with overplotting
and a languid pace. There is no reason "Hidalgo" couldn't have been
90 minutes; cutting out all of the extraneous fat would have put a
more notable focus on the driving force of the plot and made the whole
affair easier to withstand. As it is, "Hidalgo" tests one's patience
more than it enthralls and touches.
Set during the last decade of the 19th century, Frank Hopkins (Viggo
Mortensen) finds himself losing all hope after witnessing his ancestral
Native American family slaughtered at the Wounded Knee Creek massacre.
He is further discouraged when he turns to work for the Buffalo Bill
circus with his trusty mustang named Hidalgo. There doesn't seem to
be any sort of a promising future for Frank until the said man-and-horse
race gives him a reason for living. If he survives the heat, the modest
lack of water and nourishment, and nature's unpredictable elements—not
to mention finish in first place—he will walk away with $10,000. It's
almost like a historical era, desert-set version of "The Amazing Race"
when you think about it.
Unfortunately, an impending sandstorm and a locust attack are the
least of Frank and Hidalgo's problems. When Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson),
the strong-willed daughter of the royal Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif),
is kidnapped, Frank is sent on a mission to rescue her from ruthless
Arabs. And in a bid to have her own betting horse win the race, the
scheming Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard) sends her minions out
to kill Hidalgo and leave Frank to fend for himself on foot.
For a film whose story trajectory is all over the place and that can
never seem to trust the simple, effective drama inherent in the race
itself, "Hidalgo" could have turned out much worse. The first and
third acts are potent and assured enough in the hands of director
Joe Johnston, with a number of fine moments to diverge attention.
The worn, resigned portrait captured of Frank in the opening segments
is subtly powerful, avoiding easy answers and sentimentality to develop
this complicated protagonist. The visual effects of the sandstorm
are nowhere near as cheesy as the trailers suggest, and the setpiece
is a tense, if far-fetched, one. Likewise, the final leg of the race
is thoroughly exciting, aided by the tight, masterful editing of Robert
Dalva, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
Johnston and screenwriter John Fusco (2002's "Spirit: Stallion of
the Cimarron") should have trusted the rapturous pull of the race
itself to be more than enough fodder for a captivating motion picture.
Instead, they abandon the race altogether for at least an hour to
deal with a monotonous array of subplots, each one of which could
have been completely excised from the final cut and not have had any
effect on the remaining footage. There is some promise, and a speck
of charisma, in the relationship that grows between Frank and Jazira,
but nothing ever comes of it. His valiant rescue of her from kidnappers
is a hoary rip-off of 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and is protracted
to ridiculous lengths. After this, there are even more dull stereotypes
and story threads to deal with before the race—and the action—gets
underway again. The sudden pace upstart ultimately comes too little,
too late. When the third act closes in and one character remarks that
there is only 400 miles left, it comes as almost a joke to the viewer.
After all, how could Frank have already traveled 2,600 miles when
only about twenty minutes of screentime had been afforded to the race by this point?
Carrying a major studio picture on his own shoulders for the first
time, Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy)
is in nearly every frame of "Hidalgo," and he does not disappoint.
In his body language and speech, Mortensen is cool, suave, and laid-back
as Frank Hopkins. Moving one step further, he is able to display a
mournful complexity underneath the surface of Frank that gives him
real heart. Mortensen deserves another lead part in a better movie.
In supporting roles, Omar Sharif (1999's "The 13th Warrior") brings
regal authority and unexpected humanity to Sheikh Riyadh, while Zuleikha
Robinson (2000's "Timecode"), as Frank's would-be love interest Jazira,
unmistakably resembles the one-of-a-kind Janeane Garofalo with half the personality.
In bringing "Hidalgo" to cinematic fruition, director Joe Johnston
should have trusted his surrounding talent and the horse classics
of the past (i.e. 1979's "The Black Stallion") and followed their
lead. Indeed, the most effective moments are the ones in which Frank
and Hidalgo ride over the amazing landscapes, restoring their faith
in the Earth and bonding without having to say a word. Had the race
in "Hidalgo" been treated more seriously, a sort of document of what
it really takes to achieve such an impossible feat, all would have
been well with the finished product. The cinematogra phy by Shelly
Johnson (2001's "The Last Castle") that accompanies the race is some
of the best so far this year; there isn't an image on hand that isn't
utterly breathtaking in its beauty and majestic in its intended scope.
Calamitously, the film sinks under the heavy weights of cliches, needless
exposition scenes, and occasionally laughable, arbitrary subtitles.
Concurrently, so little time is afforded to the key friendship between
Frank and his horse that it fails to convince and endear. "Hidalgo"
is not a bad film, but it is a largely misguided one that too often
forgets what it should be about.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman