It is important to talk about Hidalgo being marketed as a “true story.” As a general rule, it’s good to be wary of movies that are heavily pushed as being “true stories” or “based on true events.” You have to pay close attention to the wording. Last fall, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was heavily marketed as a film “inspired by true events.” Which means it’s about as real as your dreams are. With this said, Hidalgo is based on the real Frank Hopkins and his stories about his life. Oh yeah, it just so happens that Hopkins is also a pathological liar and none of this is real. So, what the marketing of Hidalgo should really say is something like “based on the true story of what we heard from a pathological liar.” Something like that.
In fact, if you do some minor research, you’ll discover that the only thing true is that there was a guy named Frank Hopkins. He wasn’t part Native American, a Pony Express employee, a member of Wild Bill’s Circus, and he never had a horse named Hidalgo AND there has never been any 3,000-mile race in the Arabian desert. Yet Disneys marketing department still goes with “based on a true story.” I’ll remember that next time I have a dream involving little people and ice cream.
Hidalgo is the “story” of Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a former Pony Express employee who’s turned to the bottle to try to forget the slaughtering of Native Americans (exactly like Tom Cruise in Last Samurai). Hopkins enters a legendary 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert to regain his spirit. The race, across the “Ocean of Fire,” is dangerous, the elements are brutal, and the other riders will stop at nothing to win. Can the American cowboy who no one believes in triumph in the end?
Taking a hard look at Hidalgo, roughly 50 percent of the finished movie is watching Hopkins travel from Point A (usually on the left) to Point B (usually on the right). So, yes, half of this movie is watching someone walk one direction. I can’t imagine what the editing process was like. How do you know exactly where one shot of Hopkins walking should go? Sure, Lawrence of Arabia had a lot of walking in the desert from left to right, but it was also 4 hours long! Both films do star Omar Sharif, though.
25 percent of what is left involves people sitting around talking about all kinds of clichés, like pining for acceptance, independence, equality, etc. These sequences tend to bog down Hidalgo‘s narrative and bring the action to a halt. I realize that these “sit down” scenes are meant to be breathers and expand the characters. However, the characters don’t deepen because they are amidst a patchwork of clichés instead of a story. The actors are also saddled with some laughably awful dialogue, like, “There is a tempest in my tent,” or the greatest groaner of them all, “Even a blind man could see you’re beautiful.”
So, continuing numbers crunching, an audience is left with 25 percent of a movie, and what is that 25 percent? In short, the rest. Hidalgo does have some lively action sequences and exciting horse races but these bursts of fun are much too far apart. When getting down to it, Hidalgo is 25 percent an interesting movie. Now, whether 25 percent of entertainment is enough for someone depends on how hard-fought they are for amusement.
The thing Hidalgo has going for it is Viggo’s star power. He is a handsome guy and has a smoldering presence but he whispers more lines than any actor I know. Maybe he threw out his voice after three of years of yelling with The Lord of the Rings.
There are just some wondrously odd moments in Hidalgo. When Hopkins gets to the Arabian desert he notices a group of chained black people walking beside him. “Never seen slaves before?” a rider asks Hopkins. Then we cut away. What was that? The movie gives a shoulder shrug to slavery and then moves on. Later the slave kid becomes part of Hopkins’ pit crew, which also includes a wily old goat farmer. What? I have no idea how this kid became like Hopkins’ servant, and I have no idea why he’d be so happy about it. This part of the movie leaves me stumped, especially for a film where a character is so forward thinking about tolerating other races (as the protagonists always are in movies now). By the time you get to a laugh-out-loud sequence where Hopkins is on his knees chanting Native American chants, and the wavy ghosts of his brethren encircle him, you may have already checked out of the building.
Some of the blame must be heaped upon director Joe Johnston (Jumanji). His pacing is quite slack (136 minutes) and yet he stuffs more subplots and minor characters than the narrative seems able to handle. A very long subplot involving a kidnapped princess is a nice diversion, but entirely inorganic and almost to a distracting level of fantasy. Johnston also employs some hatchet CGI work that seems like it was left over from The Mummy movies. It does not speak well to the quality of a film when it’s been on the shelf for close to a year. The surprise antagonist who kidnaps, kills, and does whatever to win the race has no repercussions at the end. They lose. That’s it. Hopkins doesn’t even find out the person is a villain. What’s up with that? There’s no comeuppance
Hidalgo is not a bad film, but it’s not exactly a good film either. It’s cliché-ridden, clumsily plotted, and full of bad dialogue and stiff characters. The movie looks good, and the horses are beautiful, but this is one tale to put out to pasture. Those hungry for a grand adventure with a hunky lead may be partially pleased, but that’s only if they can put up with 25 percent of an entertaining movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+