While many of the elves, dwarves, wizards, hobbits, and humans who populated The Lord Of The Rings’ sprawling fantasy universe seem destined for futures dominated by appearances at science-fiction conventions, some of the series’ more glamorous stars are testing out their own post-Rings vehicles. Orlando Bloom gave a suitably swashbuckling performance in Pirates Of The Caribbean, but goofy comic relief Johnny Depp ran off with the Oscar nomination and the film. Now, Viggo Mortensen stars in Hidalgo as a legendary real-life long-distance rider who talks like Clint Eastwood and looks like a more soulful Marlboro Man.
A veteran of both the Pony Express and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Mortensen’s tormented he-man travels to the Middle East for a grueling high-stakes race whose inhuman rigors kill off a sizable percentage of its participants. A stranger in a strange land, Mortensen is treated with hostility, condescension, and just a little bit of fascination by the haughty Arab aristocracy behind the long-distance race. As his duplicitous competitors plot against each other and him, Mortensen conducts himself with quiet dignity, unshowy kindness, and an unwavering sense of moral certitude. Like Tobey Maguire in the similarly old-fashioned Seabiscuit, he doesn’t ride a horse so much as a four-legged embodiment of the triumph of the human spirit.
As an action hero, Mortensen is an acolyte of the Clint Eastwood/Kurt Russell school of stoic minimalism. His quietly virtuous über-cowboy speaks—in a steely rasp, of course—only when he needs to, and even then, he says only as much as he needs to say. Mortensen nicely underplays his role, offhandedly tossing off one-liners and making the script’s sometimes purple dialogue sound a little less cheesy, but the rest of the film often lurches into hammy overdrive. Many of the film’s supporting villains seem to have stumbled in from a ’30s Republic serial, while James Newton Howard’s gooey score launches into majestic swelling at all the expected moments. Mortensen is ruggedly handsome, with star-power to spare, but Hidalgo doesn’t prove anywhere near as memorable, sturdy, or fleet-footed as its eponymous wonder-horse. Mortensen’s perilous trek across the Middle East is one hell of an endurance test, and, to a more modest degree, so is Hidalgo.