'Hidalgo': Horse-racing tale could use more giddyap

How you feel about the adventure/horse-race movie "Hidalgo" has a lot to do with how you feel about gazing at Viggo Mortensen for more than two hours. (Well, most of the time the camera gazes at Mortensen, though occasionally we're given a nice close-up of a horse.)

Mortensen's an unlikely matinee idol; though he's devilishly handsome (he looks like a rough-hewn Jude Law), there's a laid-back, unruffled quality to him that well suits the cowboy character he plays here. Some may find him a little too laconic; others may simply enjoy the scenery.

And there's scenery aplenty here, far beyond Viggo's manly visage. "Hidalgo," set in the late days of the 19th century, begins in the American West and travels to Arabia, with plenty of sweeping plains and endless skylines along the way.

Mortensen plays Frank T. Hopkins, a disgruntled outcast haunted by the battle at Wounded Knee. Like Tom Cruise in the beginning of "The Last Samurai," he's halfheartedly touring in a Wild West show, connecting only with his beloved horse, Hidalgo.

When the pair are given the opportunity to travel overseas to enter the Ocean of Fire (a 3,000-mile survival race across the Arabian Desert), Hopkins hesitates, but only momentarily.

Soon, he's riding the horse up the gangplank of a ship, where the elegant Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), owner of a rival horse, coolly eyes him with something more than professional interest. And in Arabia, more woman troubles emerge: He finds friendship with Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), daughter of the powerful Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) and a horsewoman who wants to ride where females are forbidden.

It's a fairly routine adventure story, which may well have little basis in fact. (Many Web sites have disputed the events portrayed in "Hidalgo"; not being a historian, I can only note the controversy and move on.) But whether it's true or not has little to do with whether it works as a movie, and overall it does, thanks to Mortensen's slightly hesitant charm (Hopkins is a bit out of his depth here, and he knows it) and some dazzling visual work from director of photography Shelley Johnson.

See "Hidalgo" on a big screen and you'll be rewarded by vistas of horses, their hooves pounding against snow-hardened ground on some American plain; by some undeniably cool sandstorms (yes, you can tell it's CGI, but it's far better than those in "The Mummy"); by a shot of a leopard racing toward the camera that just might take your breath away. All this makes it possible to forgive the film's problems: its excessive length and sometimes awkward pacing, its cartoony scene of a near-castration, its easy (though not hammered) West-triumphs-over-East message.

"Hidalgo" too often seems to doze off, leaving the viewer with little to do but count Lady Anne's seemingly endless collection of stylish desert veils (one, alas, looks like it has worms crawling all over it). But when it's awake, it offers plenty of diversion as Mortensen shows a new side of his persona here: the noble cowboy, squinting in the sun.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie Review

Showtimes and trailer

"Hidalgo," with Viggo Mortensen, Zuleikha Robinson, Omar Sharif, Louise Lombard, Adam Alexi-Malle, Said Taghmaoui, J.K. Simmons. Directed by Joe Johnston, from a screenplay by John Fusco. 133 minutes. Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and some mild innuendo. Several theaters.