After an early life as a celebrated cowboy and horse racer, personal tragedy and booze have reduced Frank Hopkins (Mortensen) to a circus act. But an invitation to enter the Ocean Of Fire desert race brings a chance for redemption and fortune.
Trying to restart a career after being the centrepiece of a cinematic milestone is an unenviable task for any actor, particularly one who was previously a virtual unknown. Viggo Mortensen appears to have taken his lead from the stars of celluloid's other favourite fantasy series, Star Wars, but in playing a poor relation to Harrison Ford's second defining role, he's risked consigning himself to Hamillville.
Joe Johnston, who made Jumanji and Jurassic Park III into cheerfully silly entertainment, reaches for a grown-up Indiana Jones-style adventure, but although he's filled the screen with beautiful landscapes and sultry sunsets, he can't disguise a stinker of a script and a miscast leading man.
The opening segments, which attempt to establish Hopkins as a man racked with guilt over failing to prevent the mass murder of an Indian tribe, lack focus and are too quickly dispensed with. The result is that Hopkins becomes a hero without identity, just another rider in a race for the gold, so even when the real reason for his entering the race becomes apparent, it's a complete non-event.
When called upon to portray gravitas and nobility Mortensen can be magnetic, but he's far too introspective and sullen to play the clown - which Hopkins so often is. Kudos to him for moving a good distance away from Aragorn, but when messing about with a sarcastically snorting horse and fending off rent-a-stereotype Arab baddies he just looks uncomfortable - the horse has by no means the longest face in the film
Once the riders assemble on the starting line the pace looks like picking up rapidly as the steeds thunder away, trailing plumes of desert dust behind them. Briefly the stage is set for Seabiscuit among the sand dunes and 90 minutes of equine frenzy, then just as suddenly they slow to a canter and proceed to 'race' at such a speed for much of the remainder of the film. And where's the tension to be had in a competition that takes a two-day break to allow for the rescue of a feisty but danger-prone young heroine?
Ultimately, Hidalgo falls down due to a neglect of basic story elements - anonymous villains, a hero with no clear goal other than money, love interests who sound alternately gin-sodden and lobotomised - and after a brief burst of energy staggers home at a mild limp.
Not really. For a film about high-speed racing it proves far more of a plodding endurance test, for both horse and viewer.