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2006-03-30 12:32

The problem with Hollywood today isn't that there are no movie artists. The artists are always there, fighting to make good movies or, sometimes, fighting just to work. The problem is that there are no talented hacks.

There are plenty of hacks, anonymous directors who can turn out anonymous movies that will do enough business to keep them employable. But the type of hacks the studios used to employ, the ones who could be counted on to turn out the cleanly made, entertaining movies that occupy us in between the truly remarkable ones, don't seem to exist anymore. That may be because what they could be depended on for -- coherent, emotionally involving storytelling -- is no longer something that matters to the studios at a time when most mainstream movies have been reduced to spectacle.

The new western-cum-swashbuckler "Hidalgo" is the sort of movie that Hollywood once could have made in its collective sleep. Based (loosely, I'm betting) on the life of Frank T. Hopkins, a cowboy who rode his mustang Hidalgo to victory in numerous long-distance races, the picture tells the story of Frank and Hidalgo's entrance into the Ocean of Fire, an endurance race across 3,000 miles of the Arabian desert.

The filmmakers must have realized that a race across a barren desert might get tedious to watch, so they've introduced a subplot about an Arabian princess (Zuleikha Robinson) who aids Frank to prevent the victory of a prince to whom she has been promised in marriage if he is victorious. It's hokey, sure, but it's also exactly the sort of damsel-in-distress scenario that's perfect to get the engine of an adventure story revving.

Frank is invited to enter the race because its sponsor, Sheik Riyadh (Omar Sharif), is offended by Frank's claim that Hidalgo is the greatest horse in the world. He wants to prove that his purebred Arabians are superior horses to a wild mustang. I'm waiting for someone to start complaining that the movie is anti-Arab (surely the Village Voice, which decried the "racism" in "Freaky Friday," can't resist, can it?). It's true that the Arabs are portrayed as the threatening other, and that has an unfortunate resonance in the post-9/11 world. But they are in the movie tradition of inscrutable villains, and they're outdone in villainy by Louise Lombard as the British aristocrat who has her own reasons for winning the race.

If there's any threat to Arab sensibilities in "Hidalgo," it's this: The Muslim prohibition against ham will never stand as long as Omar Sharif is acting. It's too bad the movie doesn't allow him some more mischievous charm. He needs to be an authority figure who's amused by his own power, a bit of a joker (which is the way Jeff Chandler played Cochise in the great 1950 western "Broken Arrow"). Instead he's used as, well, as Omar Sharif. His presence is meant to be enough.

The biggest problem with the whole American-Arab rivalry is that the moviemakers fail to exploit what should have been catnip for audiences: the battle between mutts and aristocrats. Frank, the cowboy, and Hidalgo, the untamed mustang, are heroes because they represent the mongrel nature of America and our instinctive distrust of the highborn and highfalutin. That's the essence of the breezy disrespect for authority that characterizes the great comedies and gangster movies and westerns of our collective moviegoing past.

It's a good joke when Frank addresses the sheik as "pardner," and finally, a sign of respect, too. It should be a great joke that the sheik turns out to be a devotee of western pulps. For all his aristocratic pride, even he can't resist the myth of the American West. But the filmmakers, as with almost everything else in the movie, don't squeeze the potential juice from it.

So many mainstream movies today seem like nothing but concept, pitches for movies that haven't been fleshed out, and "Hidalgo" is no exception. It's a manque of a rousing adventure tale and not the real thing. You're constantly aware of the gulf between how the movie wants to excite you and the halfhearted execution.

Next page | "...some lovely shots of horses in vast landscapes..."

This so-so western starring Viggo Mortensen and a very attractive horse never quite hits its stride.

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