Thrilling, heartbreaking, witty, romantic, and largely family-friendly, The Mask of Zorro is possibly the best swashbuckler of its decade, a film at once true to the spirit of the classic period actioners and also thoroughly of its own time.
A solid tale of honor, betrayal, oppression, love and family spanning a generation, The Mask of Zorro integrates the genre’s traditional moral themes — protection of the poor and defenseless, resistance of oppression, the supporting role of religious leaders — into a cleverly structured, action-packed spectacle that makes room for such elements as a passionate, sword-wielding heroine and an explosive finale that would do 007 proud.
It’s a long way from the usual anachronistic fluff that characterizes modern Hollywood’s approach toward this sort of material (whether entertainingly, as in Pirates of the Caribbean, or not, as in the 1993 Brat PackThree Musketeers; the most recent Count of Monte Cristo does a bit better in this regard).
The Mask of Zorro is not a remake of the classic story of Don Diego de la Vega, the young don who returns from Spain to his native California and adopts a mask to fight the corruption and oppression he finds there. Instead, it’s a sequel of sorts, picking up where the classic tale leaves off, with the triumph and imminent retirement of an aging Diego (Anthony Hopkins). Alas, this version opens with a tragic postscript to Diego’s crusade, as his mortal enemy Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) discovers Zorro’s true identity and takes cruel vengeance on Diego’s family. For twenty years, Diego languishes in prison, his spirit broken.
Then one day Diego’s enemy returns, and Zorro finds a new reason to live. He also finds a protégé, a scruffy rogue named Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) who once helped Zorro, and now has a grudge of his own against the villains. Eventually, Alejandro finds that he has something else in common with his mentor: Elena (newcomer Catherine Zeta-Jones), the beautiful, fiery adopted daughter of Don Rafael, whose true father, unbeknownst to her, is the original Zorro.
Hopkins, always commanding, is surprisingly dashing as Diego, with a steely grin and devil-may-care glint in his eyes evocative of an older, smarter Douglas Fairbanks Sr. His natural gravitas offsets the lightweight imposter heroism of Banderas’s Alejandro, a charismatic scoundrel who cleans up well and ultimately learns the meaning, as well as the methods, of heroism. The real revelation, though, is Zeta-Jones, who easily carves a spot for herself in what would otherwise be a boys’ picture. To a significant degree, Elena is what both Zorros are fighting for, and Zeta-Jones makes Elena well worth fighting for.
The Mask of Zorro is a rare action film in which the villains have an evil plot that is clever in its own right rather than existing only to drive the story, and commit crimes that are integral to the story rather than merely providing a moral context for the hero to fight them. And like the classic Zorro tales of old, the film depicts Catholic priests as part of the suffering oppressed, not the malevolent establishment, and shows them aiding both Zorros in their mission.
The action, too, more than honors Zorro’s heritage, with a splashy prologue featuring Fairbanks-style leaping from the parapets and a posse chase showcasing stunt riding in the best Western tradition. And while the swordfighting is all good, the most memorable, if not necessarily the strongest, is the flirtatious duel between Elena and the younger Zorro, a playful counterpoint to their earlier tango without masks or swords.
The Mask of Zorro isn’t the first next-generation Zorro story. Douglas Fairbanks, who played Don Diego in the original silent 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro, went on to play the dual (and duelling) roles of Don Diego and his son Don Cesar in the excellent Don Q Son of Zorro, a European swashbuckler in the Dumas tradition.
It’s a pity the generation of this Zorro film may not be overly familiar with the classic tale of Diego de la Vega. The last major big-screen Hollywood retelling of that story was the great 1940 remake of The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power. The Mask of Zorro builds on this story, but the definitive Zorro film for our time has yet to be made.
More precisely, it’s a “funny family action film” in the Fantastic Four mold — that is, a movie whose key qualification as kid entertainment is that it isn’t good enough for grown‑ups. Too bad. Our kids deserve better. For that matter, so do we.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.