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by: Scott Renshaw

There are a few noteworthy similarities between Zorro and James Bond, the last iconic hero directed by Martin Campbell (in GOLDENEYE).  Like Bond, Zorro has a decades-long screen history; like Bond, Zorro has been portrayed by some hard-to-follow screen legends (including Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.); like those portraying Bond, those portraying Zorro have almost never been of the same national origin as the character.  Most significantly, in both cases the character himself is larger than life -- all you need to do is put him on screen and you're halfway to satisfying the audience. 

It's a frustrating waste of effort to watch a character like that dwarfed by a typically over-blown contemporary action film structure. Antonio Banderas dons THE MASK OF ZORRO (eventually) with more than enough charisma to create a rousing heroic adventure.  What a shame no one had enough confidence in the actor, or the character.  Banderas plays  Alejandro Murrieta, a thief who once with his brother assisted original Zorro Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) in his mission to protect the poor citizens of 19th century Spanish-ruled California.  Twenty years after that incident, Alejandro is anxious to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of the cruel Captain Love (Matt Letscher), de la Vega has finally escaped from prison, and de la Vega's old nemesis Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) has returned to old California with a plan to regain power.  To further his own plans of vengeance, de la Vega seizes on Alejandro's, training a successor to wear the fear-inspiring black costume and make the sign of the Z.

The two make a decent enough pair -- Alejandro the impulsive pupil and de la Vega his graying Yoda -- but THE MASK OF ZORRO only truly comes to life when Banderas is front and center, clad in black.  He brings a roguish swagger to the part of a common man delighting at being turned into a super-hero; when he over-hears the confession of Montero's adopted daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) that she finds the masked man attractive, you suspect it's all he can do to keep from giving himself a huge pat on the back.  In the few set pieces where Banderas gets to whirl into action, whether crossing swords as Zorro or burning up the dance floor with Elena while posing as a nobleman, he's an electrifying presence, a genuine movie star giving the audience a grand show.

In this bloated production, however, it's hard to keep focused on the dash and flash of Zorro.  The length is padded by the obligatory back story introducing us to the "origin" of the new Zorro, as well as a ridiculous sword fight between Zorro and Elena which offers stilted banter and a PG-13-preserving disrobing thanks to strategically placed hair. Mostly, the story by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the summer's busiest writing team, with credits on GODZILLA and SMALL SOLDIERS as well) has the generic feel of an action film just one re-write removed from being a Bond vehicle.  The evil Don Rafael stands before a map to lay out his power-mad scheme, his ice-hearted right-hand-man Captain Love acts as Oddjob-like muscle, and the action scenes are strung together with only cursory concern for narrative flow.  The setting has a back-lot blandness to it without the back-lot charm of swashbuckling melodrama.   1840s California might just as well have been 1960s East Germany or 1990s Iraq.

You may be pleading for something as restrained as the finale of a typical Bond adventure by the time THE MASK OF ZORRO reaches its climactic showdown at a gold mine.  The split story structure once again forces the focus away from Banderas, as Campbell cuts back and forth between Alejandro's duel-to-the-death with Captain Love and de la Vega's duel-to-the-death with Don Rafael, occasionally interrupted by the panicked screams of slave laborers carted in from outtakes of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  Th


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