The Mask of Zorro
Screenplay : Terry Rossio & Ted Elliott and John Eskow
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Antonio Banderas (Alejandro Murrieta/Zorro), Anthony Hopkins (Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Elena Montero), Stuart Wilson (Don Rafael Montero), Matthew Letscher (Captain Harrison Love), Tony Amendola (Don Luiz), Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (Don Pedro), L.Q. Jones (Three-Fingered Jack), José Pérez (Corporal Armando Garcia), William Marquez (Fray Felipe), Victor Rivers (Joaquin Murrietta)
Ever since Tim Burton's 1989 version of "Batman," recent cinematic superheroes have been required to brood. It is no longer appropriate for heroes to heroically perform good deeds simply because they're good deeds; instead, they have to be either avenging something personal, or dealing with their own inner demons. This has been true of a number of recent superhero movies, including "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" (1991), "The Shadow" (1994), and "Spawn" (1997).
The main character in "The Mask of Zorro," the latest entry into the modernized pulp hero category, is the classic hero of comic books, pulp magazines, and movie serials of the first part of the century. He is a wealthy Spanish aristocrat in California circa 1840, who dons a mask and fights for the oppressed masses. Although the movie has an overall tone of lightheartedness and thrilling aplomb, underneath all the rousing music, breakneck action, and even some "Three Stooges"-style comedy, it has an angry resonance that makes everything come off just a little bit darker than it normally would.
Zorro, who is actually Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) when not in disguise, starts off the movie as a swashbuckling hero who knows no defeat. But, within the first twenty minutes, his wife is killed, his infant daughter, Elena, is stolen from him to be raised by Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), his mortal enemy, and he is locked in a dungeon for twenty long years.
When Diego finally escapes from prison, he takes under his wing a clever thief named Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), in order to train him to assume the mask of Zorro. However, Alejandro has his own agenda besides helping the peasants: his brother, Joaquin (Victor Rivers) was killed by Captain Harrison Love (Matthew Letscher), the right-hand man of Montero.
Montero has recently returned to California from being exiled in Spain for losing the province to Mexico earlier in the film. His plan is to make California its own nation with him as ruler, by buying the land from Mexican General Santa Anna with gold dug out of the California hills.
Although the overall movie never quite comes together in truly grand fashion, "The Mask of Zorro" certainly has its moments. If any of the earlier segments of the movie seem a bit tepid and brooding, the rousing climax certainly is not. Director Martin Campbell ("GoldenEye") stages a raucous finale worthy of the old movie serials: he cross-cuts among Old and Young Zorro simultaneously locked in separate sword duels to the death, at appropriately precarious heights; the now mature Elena (newcomer Catherine Zeta-Jones) unsure of which father to help; a mob of Mexican peasants locked inside a mine engulfed in flames; and a quickly burning fuse that is racing toward a large pile of powder kegs underneath everything.
There is also a great dance sequence near the middle of the film between Elena and Alejandro, who is posing as a nobleman at a lavish party at Montero's estate. They tear up the dance floor in one of the most memorable sexy mambos since Al Pacino tangoed with Gabrielle Anwar in "Scent of a Woman" (1992). It's one of those great, sensual moments because it's overt enough to be steamy, but you can feel that there's much more going on inside the characters than they are allowed to show at that particular moment. Campbell also stages an amusing sequence later between Elena and Alejandro, this time masked as Zorro, in which they use swordplay as a kind of sexual foreplay.
"The Mask of Zorro" certainly benefits from its great roster of actors, although the movie feels a bit light in the villains category. Anthony Hopkins, despite his English accent, makes a fine aging Zorro. Hopkins brings gravity and dignity to every role he assumes, which is exactly what is needed here to offset the rambunctious impatience of Banderas' Alejandro. Banderas is also well-cast as the dashing young Zorro; his matinee-idol status is ever-growing. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the real discovery, however. Erotic and innocent at the same time, she brings spirit and sensuality to her mostly underwritten role.
Overall, "The Mask of Zorro" is a rousing adventure tale that evokes both the darkness of the early entries into the "Batman" series, and the lighthearted cliffhanger glee of early motion picture serials. Although it falls far short of the action standard set by "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "Zorro" has just enough well-choreographed swordplay, exciting stunts, and wild horse chases (one of which is an Old West variation on the truck chase scene in "Raiders") to keep its audience entertained for two hours.
©1998 James Kendrick