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[whitespace] Horse-Case Scenario

Viggo Mortensen gallops to glory in 'Hidalgo'

By Richard von Busack

THE NEW MOVIE Hidalgo seems predicated on the idea that the remote and slightly contemptuous Viggo Mortensen was never really a star until he acted with a horse in The Two Towers, where the steed saved his life. It was worth a try to recapture that rapport between beast and man, and Mortensen--a coldblooded man in the Arabian desert--makes Hidalgo a study of thermal contrast. In plotting that's frighteningly similar to The Last Samurai, Mortensen plays Frank Hopkins, a drunken star of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show of the 1890s. Being half-Indian, he has issues about the attempted extermination of Native Americans. The plot has it that Hopkins was the courier who delivered the orders to start the shooting at Wounded Knee. The once-famous rider is given a chance to show the sturdiness of his Palomino mustang Hidalgo in a race through the desert against pedigreed Arabians.

Director Joe Johnston, a more historically canny Spielberg, makes this an all-ages kid movie. He always keeps one eye on the traditions of the genre; the lady who loves this cowboy fully expects to be jilted in favor of the horse, because that's the way she's heard it happens. She's a sheik's daughter named Jazira, played by the Michelle Rodriguez look-alike Zuleikha Robinson.

Unfortunately, there are the usual sour touches of the school of Spielberg's Republic serial pastiches, which are the reason the Indiana Jones movies don't work for me. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum put it best: If the message of Citizen Kane is "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper," the message of Raiders of the Lost Ark is "I think it would be fun to shoot an Arab." One of the big moments quoted in the previews, for example, is a scene where we're instructed in the easy method of using a flipped coin as a diversion. All the better to sucker-punch someone shorter than you.

Johnston has loaded this allegedly true story with 12 serial chapters' worth of action, including computerized locusts and sandstorms and a leopard attack. Mortensen isn't even as relatively thawed as he was as King Aragorn. But Hidalgo delivers with a diverting boy's-book adventure, and it's well appointed in the supporting parts, with Louise Lombard providing much fun as a heartless Englishwoman who wears petite Victorian sunglasses and delivers a historically accurate speech about the Europeans' previous attempt to get the Arabian horses' breeding stock. Elizabeth Berridge (from Amadeus) has a bracing turn as a weary, over-rouged Annie Oakley, and J.K. Simmons makes a shrewd Buffalo Bill. The highlight is a brilliant bit of action-moviemaking in a mud city, where our hero, the horse, saves both the leads. And there are little scenes that bespeak research--such as a sequence of one rider, fatally bereaved over the loss of his Arabian horse, muttering poetry of lamentation and still dragging the empty bridle across the sands.

Hidalgo (PG-13; 133 min.), directed by Joe Johnston, written by John Fusco, photographed by Shelly Johnson and starring Viggo Mortensen, Zuleikha Robinson and Omar Sharif, opens Friday valleywide.Caviezel, Hristo Shopov and Rosalinda Celentano, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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