Saturday, February 9, 2013

Hidalgo (2004)

Director: Joe Johnston                                   Writer: John Fusco
Film Score: James Newton Howard                 Cinematography: Shelly Johnson
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Louise Lombard and J.K. Simmons

This is not something I expected to like. I don’t typically enjoy animal films, and after a supremely disappointing screening of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, I was not enthused. But Hidalgo delivers on a number of scores, not the least of which is its overall entertainment value. Part Indiana Jones, part Lawrence of Arabia, part The Last Samurai, and part Dances with Wolves, despite the title it’s not so much the story of a horse--which is just one of the areas where War Horse went terribly wrong--it’s the story of a man, Frank Hopkins, who is driven to race down his own demons and come out on the other side a better man.

The story begins on a cross-country horse race that Hopkins’ horse Hidalgo wins going away. Mortensen, who really hasn’t had a chance to take his career to the upper echelon where he deservingly belongs, despite being nominated for an Academy Award for Eastern Promises, does a tremendous job of conveying the world weary aspects of Hopkins that result after first-hand experience of watching the slaughter of Native American at Wounded Knee, but without the melodrama of something like The Last Samurai. Months later, Hopkins winds up a drunk at Buffalo Bill Cody’s wild west show and accepts the challenge from an Arab sheik to prove that Hidalgo is the greatest long distance horse in the world. It’s not bravado that makes him accept, more a need for a change of scenery and perhaps an unconscious death wish.

The Arabian long distance challenge consumes the bulk of the film, taking on the intrigue and double-dealing that is reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films, but again, without the cartoonish elements. Hidalgo has humor in it, but it’s not played for laughs. Omar Sharif is tremendous as the sheik, outwardly repulsed by Mortensen’s infidel ways, but secretly fascinated with cowboys and the American West. Louise Lombard is the obligatory femme fatale, but that aspect of the film is almost unnecessary, while Zuleikha Robinson as the daughter of the sheik is splendid conveying the limitations imposed on women in Arab society.

There’s nothing terribly interesting about Joe Johnston’s direction, but it does manage to stay out of the way of the story, and for a lot of directors that not an easy feat so that is a net positive. James Newton Howard provides a typically reliable score that supports the action and yet doesn’t yield to the temptation to go “Middle-Eastern.” It’s not a film that was destined to win any awards, and for many it isn’t very good at all. But it’s a solid, historical action/adventure film that is worth the experience. Patience is the key to understanding it, and letting it unfold in it’s own way and in it’s own time. And going into it with that attitude, Hidalgo delivers a lot of good entertainment.

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