Directed by Joe Johnston, starring Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson, Louise Lombard, Adam Alexi-Malle.
An American hero turned alcoholic wastes his skills in a travelling Wild West show until he gets an offer he can't refuse from a mysterious foreign stranger. So far, so 'The Last Samurai', but the star of this film is not Tom Cruise but 'Lord of the Rings' heartthrob Viggo Mortensen. Based on the true story of famed cowboy Frank T Hopkins and his loyal mustang, the eponymous Hidalgo, it's impossible to avoid feelings of déjà vu while watching. Initial similarities to 'The Last Samurai' give way to scenes - including a sandstorm and plague of locusts - which could be taken direct from 'The Scorpion King'. There are also similarities to 'Lawrence of Arabia', not least of which is the presence of Omar Sharif, looking wonderfully believable as an imperious Sheikh.
In the late 1800s Hopkins (Mortensen) was the greatest distance rider in the American West but, by 1890, he's a drunk has-been, reduced to turning tricks for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Approached to enter the Ocean of Fire, a 1600-year-old survival race across 3,000 miles of the Arabian Desert, he has a chance to redeem himself but is not sure if he - or Hidalgo - can make it. They're underdogs from the start, this part-Indian, part-white man and his mixed-breed, half-wild mustang, matched against pure Arabian stallions and their proud aristocratic riders. The race is episodic and occasionally tiresome as Hopkins and Hidalgo play tortoise to the Arabian hares and cope with natural obstacles (lack of water, no food apart from the aforementioned locusts, endless salt plains), fellow competitors bent on sabotage and incidental tangles with the Sheikh's daughter (a ravishing but underused Robinson).
Although it ranges from the Indian massacre at Wounded Knee through Buffalo Bill's sideshow and eventful life in the desert, 'Hidalgo' falls far short of its epic ambitions. This film may be based in reality but Hidalgo's exploits soon become unbelievable. Mortensen himself is too laid-back to be truly heroic, while the horse (with far better hair) steals scenes with aplomb. There are plenty of striking silhouettes of man and beast against the Arabian night/dawn sky, courtesy of cinematographer Amy Johnson, but the beauty of the landscape has to compete against too many subplots and too much clunky dialogue. Director Joe Johnston ('Jurassic Park III', 'Jumanji') proves adept at handling action sequences (particularly a well-staged rescue scene) but, with the running time stretching over two hours, there's simply not enough excitement to carry the plot forward and the climactic final race seems to come out of nowhere.
Although mainly set in the mysterious East, 'Hidalgo' has a heart which is pure Western. It's just a pity that the script couldn't have matched the talent on display.