Mask of Zorro, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Zorro, the swashbuckling hero of the undertrodden, was introduced to the world in 1919 when he debuted in the pages of Johnston McCulley's serialized novel, The Curse of Capistrano. Within a year, the masked man had appeared in a film, the silent The Mark of Zorro. Over the next eight decades, Zorro would be played by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Tyrone Power, Guy Williams, and now both Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas. The Mask of Zorro, a '90s attempt to revive interest in the venerable hero, offers just what one might reasonably expect from a Zorro movie: a great deal of excitement and adventure, all brought to the screen by using a somewhat irreverent tone that keeps the mood light without trivializing the characters.

The Mask of Zorro treats us to the sight of not one, but two, Zorros. When the film opens in 1821, the mask is worn by Don Diego De La Vega (Anthony Hopkins). He is the original Zorro, the mysterious avenger who defends Mexico against its foes, including his arch-enemy, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), the cruel governor of the region. But, on the night of Zorro's final public appearance, Montero learns his identity and takes a squadron of guards to De La Vega's abode. There, in a tragic accident, De La Vega's beloved wife is killed. Montero then imprisons his enemy and takes De La Vega's infant daughter as his own.

Twenty years later, that daughter, Elena (Catherine Zeta Jones), has grown into a beautiful woman. With her by his side, Montero triumphantly returns from exile with plans to turn California into an independent republic. Montero's reappearance awakens a long-dormant passion in De La Vega, who has spent two decades in dungeons, and he escapes. Soon after, he encounters a thief on the run from the law, Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), who, as a child, once did Zorro a favor. After a brief period of deliberation, De La Vega decides that fate has brought them together ("When the pupil is ready, the teacher will find him"), and he agrees to take the man on as his protégé and groom him as the new Zorro. For his part, Murrieta is willing to endure De La Vega's tough training regimen, because he wants revenge on his brother's killer, Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), who happens to be Montero's right-hand man.

Most recent superhero movies have been dark, bleak, and heavily reliant upon special effects. The Mask of Zorro is none of these. In many ways, it's a throwback to simpler times, before every new movie of this sort had to mimic Batman. There's something in the tone and style that recalls Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, while The Mask of Zorro isn't on the same level, it's not an altogether ridiculous comparison. Even though Zorro doesn't feature the non-stop cliffhanger adventure of Raiders, there's still plenty of action, tumult, and derring-do. And, like Raiders, this film never takes itself too seriously. The subject matter -- avenging the deaths of loved ones -- offers the potential for a grim motion picture, but that's not the path chosen by director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye) or the screenwriters.

If there's a problem with the movie, it's that the material is a little too familiar. That's obviously intentional, since fans of the genre have a series of expectations that have to be met: good must triumph over evil, the villains must be punished, the hero must get the girl, and there must be a happy ending. As far as the formula goes, The Mask of Zorro does a more-than-suitable job. Admittedly, part of the fun is that the film doesn't offer much in the way of substance, nor does it ever pretend that it's going to.

One source of pleasure associated with this movie is having the opportunity to watch a great actor like Anthony Hopkins let down his hair (literally) and take up where Errol Flynn left off. He is, as always, excellent, and he makes De La Vega more of a character than a mere screen presence. Antonio Banderas, who is undoubtedly the main reason many women will see this film, infuses his version of Zorro with charm and charisma. His playfully erotic scenes with the stunningly beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones (The Phantom) are electric. Zeta-Jones, assuring that her first appearance in a major Hollywood feature won't be forgotten, can boast the movie's most memorable costume (or lack thereof), when a sword duel with Zorro leaves Elena's garments in shreds.

Like all great heroes, Zorro is bigger than life, and we wouldn't have it any other way. Of the so-called action blockbusters to arrive on the scene during the summer of 1998, this is arguably the most sedate, and one of the best. There are no asteroids, giant lizards, or armored men with flame throwers. In fact, with the exception of one very big, very impressive explosion, The Mask of Zorro is almost devoid of pyrotechnics and special effects. The real question is whether the name and concept of "Zorro" will be able to attract the kind of box office necessary for the movie to be seen as a success. Will audiences shun the film because they deem Zorro to be quaint? Those who fall into this category cheat no one but themselves. If the film makers can produce another one like this, here's hoping that Zorro rides again.

Mask of Zorro, The (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1998-07-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1