The Mask of Zorro

The Mask of Zorro is the antithesis of the summer blockbuster as we’ve come to know it lately: no CGI (well, none that I noticed), relatively few explosions (two), action scenes you can easily follow (this is fast becoming a lost art). In short, it’s everything I want from a hot-weather adventure movie. Well … almost everything. Zorro is crisp and competent and often witty, but it only does what it’s supposed to do; it’s never quite inspired or exhilarating, despite the deft stuntwork and acting.

The movie begins in the early 1800s, when the nobleman Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) is drawn to a public execution. This nobleman, of course, is Zorro, protector of the weak and poor; he short-circuits the execution and barely escapes with the help of two urchins (he’s getting too old for this). Zorro’s nemesis, the evil Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), tracks him down to his hacienda, killing his young wife and stealing his baby daughter before tossing him in jail.

Cut to twenty years later. The urchins are now grown men; one of them is Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), who watches his brother die at the hands of a vicious Army captain (Matt Latscher). In a tavern, Alejandro meets Diego, who has recently escaped from prison. The old Zorro sees that the time has come for a new Zorro. He trains the undisciplined Alejandro in swordplay and manners.

Zorro seems intended as the start of a franchise, and I’m all for it in theory: a series of adventure movies (as opposed to action movies) whose thrills depend more on ingenuity and stuntwork than on special effects. Such a series might fill the void left when Steven Spielberg retired Indiana Jones. But Zorro‘s director, Martin Campbell, is no Spielberg. In GoldenEye, Campbell showed a solid grasp of action-movie mechanics. What he lacks is the wit and deviltry that surprise a laugh out of you and kick the action up a notch — turn a good sequence into a great one.

A fencing bout between Banderas and the Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Diego’s long-lost daughter Elena (whom Don Rafael claimed as his own child), shows what a good Zorro movie should be. As the mutually attracted Zorro and Elena cross swords, each impressed by the other’s moves, the scene develops a playful erotic rhythm. (It’s too bad Campbell cheapens it by having Zorro cut away Elena’s clothes — Zorro should be more chivalrous than that. It would’ve been a better gag the other way around.) And there’s a nicely understated scene between Elena and Diego, who’s posing as Alejandro’s servant. Hopkins, a master of repressed emotion, can stand there and do nothing and still make you feel how much he loves this daughter who has no idea who he is.

Aside from those scenes, Elena is essentially secondary to the action, and we don’t really get a sense of the relationship between the two Zorros. The movie is a bit rushed — weeks of training are telescoped into a montage — and the structure is lumpy. There’s too much set-up at the beginning, and I began to feel that the whole double-Zorro idea was unnecessary, a stunt to get Anthony Hopkins in the movie. He’s fine here, and Banderas has some good light moments, too, but he’s covered in facial hair too much of the time — he could be anyone.

And the double-revenge plot is boredom squared. I kept flashing back to The Princess Bride: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” — and it was done better then. Rob Reiner and William Goldman struck the perfect balance between picaresque goofing around — the parodic derring-do of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks — and emotional payoffs. This Zorro seems too locked into its revenge plot, like Lethal Weapon with swords; it needs more scenes that are there just for the sheer playful hell of it. Instead it has needlessly violent fight scenes (Zorro slicing a Z into his enemies loses its charm when you can see the blood) and even severed body parts in jars. Zorro needed the light touch of Robert Rodriguez, who was going to direct it until budget disputes with exec-producer Spielberg forced him out. Knowing Rodriguez, he probably wanted to make the movie cheaper and shorter and funnier. Instead, it’s expensive and long and not nearly as funny as it should have been.

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