In the period action-adventure Hidalgo, Viggo Mortensen plays Frank T. Hopkins, a real-life horseman once billed as the ''greatest distance rider the West has ever known.'' Fame enough, you whinny? Neigh. This fictionalized Hopkins is a variation on Tom Cruise's Last Samurai -- a broken American who, having faced moments of death and despair, finds redemption on exotically foreign soil. A sorrel-and-white mustang plays the title role of Hopkins' beloved steed, now turned into a variation on Seabiscuit -- an unprepossessing-looking, homegrown horse with spirit enough to outrun even the fanciest world-class purebreds in a big-wager, 3,000-mile race across the desert sands. And 19th-century Arabia -- reproduced in Morocco -- represents the Fox News Channel version of modern Muslim geography: It's populated with wily rulers devoted to mysterious rituals, shifty princes, untrustworthy aides who refer all decisions to Allah, a sheikh's young daughter chafing for freedom, and throngs of local residents who first jeer at the strange U.S. cowboy when he comes to challenge their Arabian purebreds, then come to cheer him when he prevails.
That's a lot for one horse tale to handle, and ''Hidalgo'' can't reign it all in. So this not-so-ripping yarn about Western will triumphing over what Allah decrees, directed with love for scale and location by Joe Johnston (''October Sky'') and written with too much love of man-to-horse chat by John Fusco (''Young Guns''), never quite settles into its paces.
Simplest of its charms is the opportunity to watch Mortensen adapt his charismatic demeanor of wary, taciturn soulfulness from that of a Middle-earth king-in-waiting to one fitting a half-Lakota horseman in 1890, a loner who saves most of his conversation for his horse, and the rest for brief words with his Native American brethren. (Mortensen can now list a proficiency in Elvish and Sioux on his résumé.) There is, too, the delight of luxuriating in Omar Sharif's royal personification of Arab pride as a cultured potentate. And it's always thrilling to watch an old-fashioned movie set among the awesome Moroccan dunes, during which Hopkins drawls to a hotheaded competitor, ''Nobody hurts mah horse.''
But all those churlish, villainous Arabs begin to blur into Team Bad Guy, calling Hopkins fightin' names like ''an impure unbeliever.'' The sheikh's feminist daughter (Zuleikha Robinson), a Mulan of Arabia, is a sop to modern audiences, and her girl power is canceled out, at any rate, by the horse-owning rich-twit Englishwoman (Louise Lombard), set up as a colonial Cruella.
And, repeatedly, there are unnerving, close-up-on-the-eyeball reaction shots of Hidalgo himself. These are meant, no doubt, to convey the animal's extraordinary, empathetic understanding of the rider who calls him ''brother.'' But that eye could just as well be telegraphing ''More oats, please,'' of which ''Hidalgo'' is full.