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The Mask of Zorro

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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The story of Zorro has been told many times by Hollywood. Douglas Fairbanks' classic silent version, The Mark of Zorro, appeared in 1920, Tyrone Power appeared in an excellent remake in 1940, and Republic Pictures added two serials, Zorro Rides Again (1937) and Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939). In addition, the TV series Zorro was one of the most popular shows in the '50s. However, Zorro has been largely absent from American movie screens (not counting a comedy, Zorro, the Gay Blade in 1981) for over half a century.

Now, Zorro makes a valiant return in the exciting and romantic The Mask of Zorro. Most importantly, The Mask of Zorro isn't simply another mindless ode to action. Whereas most Hollywood action flicks these days are little more than testosterone-infused pyrotechnics displays, The Mask of Zorro gives us sweeping romantic adventure--a type of filmmaking virtually absent from American theaters for several decades. And the filmmakers aren't afraid to have us laugh at their heroes. The movie pokes gentle fun at the idea of masked avengers, while at the same time embracing them as Robin Hood-style heroes.

Anthony Hopkins stars as Don Diego de la Vega. Twenty years ago, Don Diego fought Spanish oppressors in Alta California as the legendary Zorro, but now he's in prison. People still remember him and pray for his return, but even the Spanish governor who imprisoned Zorro has lost track of him and concludes that he must be dead. But legends don't die easily. After he escapes from prison, he looks for a successor to help him stop Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), who has enslaved hundreds of people to work a gold mine. Who can he turn to? He finds a none-too-smart bandit named Alejandro Murieta (Antonio Banderas), who hasn't a clue how to sword fight. "Do you know how to use that thing?" says Don Diego. "The pointy end goes in the other man," says Alejandro.

Instead of giving us a suave and elegant hero, the filmmakers give us a bumbling but courageous fool who isn't afraid to go up against an entire army. (There's more than a little bit of Jackie Chan in Banderas' Alejandro.) Don Diego describes him as "a pitiful clown." But Alejandro learns quickly, thanks to Don Diego's constant attention, and soon he joins him in combat.

While most contemporary action flicks provide a barrage of big special effects and tons of explosions, Zorro takes a low-key, distinctly old-fashioned approach that values characterization and atmosphere. This isn't just another action overkill movie. It does indeed culminate in a big pyrotechnics display, but it builds to the explosions. Instead of inundating the audience with fireworks, director Martin Campbell (who also directed the James Bond thriller GoldenEye) creates a leisurely atmosphere--laced with romanticism--that gradually builds to its big action scenes. In the '90s, this approach seems almost anachronistic, but it's also inspiring.

Much of the charm in this new Zorro comes from Banderas' attempts to woo Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the daughter of Don Diego. Zeta-Jones and Banderas light up the screen. Together, they create a hot-house atmosphere of lust--as when they face-off with swords in a barn and each parry becomes tinged with eroticism. In one of the movie's highlights, Alejandro slices at the fabric of her dress with his sword until it falls at her feet.

The Mask of Zorro doesn't always make much sense (in particular, why does Don Diego languish for 20 years in prison before he tries to escape?), but it's still a thrilling movie that revels in operatic romanticism.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

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