The Mask of Zorro
directed by Martin Campbell
(TriStar, 1998)

Zorro rested in movie retirement for a good, long time before being resurrected in 1998 for a new adventure of the black-garbed swordsman. Given the fine quality of the film and exceptional performances by the cast, it was certainly worth the wait.

The film begins at the close of Zorro's career. Revolutionary Mexicans under Santa Anna are driving out the last remnants of Spanish rule and, in California, the last Spanish governor is trying one final ploy to catch his everlasting bane, Zorro. Zorro, of course, does not disappoint. Two young boys assist in foiling the governor's trap -- but Zorro himself is foiled by that age-old misapprehension of masked avengers everywhere, that covering your eyes with a mask will conceal your identity from those who know you. Zorro isn't caught in the governor's trap, but his alter ego, Don Diego de la Vega, is taken by force from his burning home after seeing his wife killed and his tiny daughter stolen away.

Flash forward 20 years. The two boys who aided in Zorro's earlier escape are now grown into wanted men -- but their plan to rob a payroll fails and one brother dies. The survivor, Alejandro Murrieta, has no thought but vengeance against his brother's killer, but fortunately, he runs into Don Diego first. Don Diego, recently escaped from prison, easily humbles the drunken, angry Alejandro -- then reveals his identity and offers to train him to be a better weapon of vengeance. What follows is his amazing, cleverly constructed transformation into a master swordsman and civilized man -- and, along the way, an idealist. In short, a Zorro.

Together, the old and new Zorros confront the bad guys, rescue the peasants and save California from the evil Spaniard's plans. But then again, we always knew they would. Zorro is an action film, and the story is sufficient to carry off all the swashbuckling. In fact, it's better than many of the stories filmed in the period action genre.

Besides a good story and excellent cinematography, the newest Zorro film benefits from excellent casting.

Who, after seeing films like Howard's End and Remains of the Day, would picture that staid actor as an action hero? But Anthony Hopkins steps admirably into the role, filling the shoes of the masked avenger Zorro with amazing skill. Antonio Banderas, as Zorro's protege and eventual replacement, simmers as the revenge-driven Alejandro but grows remarkably into a controlled, refined hero.

Of course, an action film needs villains, and this Zorro has a couple of good ones. Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher) is the professional soldier and trained killer responsible for the death of Alejandro's brother. He is perhaps a bit too evil, too malicious, but he still is a great foil for Alejandro's Zorro.

And for the elder Zorro, Don Diego, there is deposed governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson). Montero oozes charm even as he spins his plots and machinations, a mustachioed villain in the best cinematic tradition without being so baldly villainous and melodramatic as to lose credibility with viewers.

As Elena Montero, Don Diego's stolen daughter, Catherine Zeta-Jones is poised and beautiful -- no shrinking violet to be wooed and defended by an action-hero male. When she meets the young Zorro for the second time, she gives him his fiercest duel of the day -- a well-matched sparring which is both exciting and subtly erotic.

By the end, Diego's struggle to reclaim his daughter has overshadowed the struggle for California itself ... but that's OK, because the human element will always have a stronger impact than ideals, politics and revolutions combined.

There is plenty of comic violence -- Alejandro's theft of a horse from the military barracks, for instance -- but there is also plenty in deadly earnestness. Sword master Bob Anderson deserves hearty accolades for excellent, excellent sword choreography.

Of course, being Hollywood, there must be at least one major explosion, and someone has to make a touching speech just before dying. And, sure, some of the action elements are a bit too comic booky at times -- but the climactic duel between both Zorros and their respective mortal foes is action film-making at its best.

The Mask of Zorro is a modern classic of its genre, easily earning an emphatic "Z" of approval.

review by
Tom Knapp


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