Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/23/05 14:34:52

"A real rootin'-tootin' grand ol' time for you and your horse."
5 stars (Awesome)

I knew I was going to love “Hidalgo” the second Viggo Mortensen grumbled at his horse, “Let go a’ me, ya rabbit-eared son of a snake!” Yup, this is grand cowboy fun, a wild adventure with a glorious sense of excitement and wonder, from none other director Joe Johnston, that expert of excitement and wonder - he’s the one who wowed us with “The Rocketeer” and “October Sky,” and who made otherwise throwaway actioners “Jumanji” and “Jurassic Park III” far better than they needed to be.

For “Hidalgo,” Johnson once again shows he has the eye for thrills that bring out the child in us; his best work reminds me of Spielberg in his boy’s adventure mode. I’d even go so far as to say the film’s hero, Frank T. Hopkins, is on par with Indy Jones. Both are chisled, aw-shucks swashbucklers who blend self-effacing comedy and eye-popping bravado, often in the same scene. And as with “Raiders” and its sequels, “Hidalgo” featured countless scenes that made me want to get up and cheer.

The film is loosely based on real-life cowboy Hopkins, who went from cavalry officer to centerpiece in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Like most celebrity cowpokes of the era, Hopkins’ legend was one of great exaggeration, and the story that plays out on film here is based more on the fantastic hyperbole of a wonderful storyteller and self-promoter than on actual fact. But really, when the story’s this good, who cares if it’s been embellished? Isn’t that the point of a good tall tale?

The legend of Hopkins is this: after witnessing the massacre at Wounded Knee (Hopkins himself was a half-breed but passed for all-white), the soldier left the cavalry and became a nasty drunk and something of a carnival attraction. (Think Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai,” only without the Cruiseiness.) At Buffalo Bill’s show, he’s billed as the greatest rider in the world, thanks to an impressive undefeated record in dozens of long- disatance endurance races. It’s a claim that catches the attention of some Arabian riders who feel that he may be the best rider in America, but the world? They challenge Hopkins to be the first American horseman to enter a grueling, potentially deadly 3000-mile race across the Arabian desert.

Hopkins naturally enters the race - otherwise there’d be no movie - but not for the prize money offered; no, he’s here to show the world that his Mustang, named Hidalgo, is every bit as good as the purebreds that get all the glory. And what a horse. Through the magic of filmmaking, which includes several animal actors and smart editing, Hidalgo is presented as a character every bit as real and as important as Hopkins. He is not just a prop, something on which the hero will ride, but a genuine character who creates a solid emotional connection to the story.

Also consider Mortensen’s performance. It’s one thing to be cowboy cool, it’s something greater to be cowboy cool and create a fully believable friendship between Hopkins and Hidalgo. Watch how Mortensen behaves around his animal co-star; as a guy who grew up around horses (and who owns a ranch that, yes, now includes the horse stars from both this movie and “Lord of the Rings“), Mortensen displays an uncanny naturalness. He not only looks at home riding the horse. He looks at home talking to him, as if his best friends have been horses all his life. Mortensen makes the perfect screen cowboy, and if this guy does nothing but churn out wild west adventures for the rest of his life, I’d be a happy guy.

Mortensen’s performance is a vital part of “Hidalgo,” as it sells the character as more than just a fun, larger-than-life caricature but as a real person. Hopkins never looks like a movie character, and Mortensen never looks like a movie star playing at being a cowboy. It’s so easy to buy this guy as the Real Deal. And if “Lord of the Rings” was the movie that made Mortensen a full-on movie star, “Hidalgo” is the movie that sold me on the idea of him being a full-on great actor. (Gone completely are any problems I had with the guy thanks to clunky roles in awful movies like “A Perfect Murder.” “Hidalgo” makes Viggo aces in my book.)

For all of the natural feel between the leading man and his leading horse, the movie does pack a good ton or two of the unbelievable and the incredible - this is, after all, a tall tale of the Old West, or the Middle East, as it were. And Johnston and screenwriter John Fusco aren’t afraid to pile on the impressive. Sandstorms. Locust swarms. A beautiful princess. Doublecrossing aristocrats. Daring rescues. And Omar Sharif - Omar Sharif!! - as a badass sheik who’s tough enough to behead a guy during one wicked battle scene, yet tender enough to quietly spout wisdom and admire Hopkins’ yarns of cowboy thrills.

Johnston handles all of this nonsense with great aplomb. With the help of a terrific cast, a solid script, and a crew of masterful technicians, he has built the kind of adventure movie that reminds people why they love adventure movies. “Hidalgo” is a thrilling actioner on par with Johnston’s best work, a glorious, visually stunning, deeply personal old fashioned epic that demands to be watched again and again. I left the movie beaming and wishing for another ride. That’s a great feeling to get from a movie. And “Hidalgo” is, hands down, a great, great movie.

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