Fresh off his glorious coronation in Return of the King, Viggo Mortensen chose the based-on-actual-events tale of Frank T. Hopkins for his curtain call. Hopkins was a real cowboy who witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee, traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and was an accomplished long-distance horse racer -- the Lance Armstrong of his time. The plot follows Hopkins as he competes in the Great Horse Race of the Bedouin, 3,000 miles across the Arabian Desert.
By shooting in the Middle East, director Joe Johnston has successfully recreated the look and feel of this 19th-century event. But for Mortensen -- well, let's just say this film doesn't exactly cement his status as a member of Hollywood's A-List. He mumbles his way through most of the film, playing his character as tormented and deep. Maybe he's channeling the real Hopkins, but isn't it possible that an All-American cowboy who raced for a living might have actually enjoyed it a little bit?
You can tell the filmmakers hoped the horse itself -- Hidalgo, a wild mustang -- would provide additional star power. To imbue the animal with personality, they repeatedly show Hidalgo looking back knowingly at Hopkins. In the theater, they probably hoped the audience would burst into laughter -- "That Hidalgo!" -- but it doesn't have that effect in your own living room.
There's some dramatic tension thrown in, but Mortensen doesn't seem to notice. The sheik sponsoring the race (Omar Sharif) is having problems with a wayward nephew and a headstrong daughter. An Englishwoman intent on having one of her horses win the race will do anything -- including almost try to kiss Hopkins (the closest thing to romance in the entire film). And there are sandstorms, locust swarms and other nasty surprises. The signature scene of the film is Frank and his steed silhouetted on a gaudy sunset -- and you get to see it again and again and again. Apparently the cinematographer fell in love with the Middle Eastern sky.
I liked Viggo in Lord of the Rings and even in A Perfect Murder, but he seems to be stuck as an actor, always with the brooding. Maybe he's a tortured artist in real life, but he doesn't have to play one in the movies, too. For the outsider Aragorn, his style was a perfect fit. (Then again, Peter Jackson never asked him to do his best emoting with a horse.) But in Hidalgo, Mortensen plays it like Frank Hopkins is on some kind of spiritual quest. In reality, he was probably just motivated by the $100,000 purse.