In The Mask of Zorro, Anthony Hopkins plays the eponymous masked hero as if he were doing Shakespeare. He's trying to turn a kitsch hero into a real one, and his efforts are so weirdly off key that you don't know whether to applaud or titter. This dolorous Don Diego de la Vega -- who fights Spanish oppression in Alta, California, in the early 1800s as the legendary Zorro -- seems way too bummed out to be flashing his sword and snapping his whip, swinging across parapets, dodging bullets and bitch-slapping Spaniards. When he's finally captured and thrown in prison by Governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), all you can think is: What luck! Now he can enjoy being really miserable.
This melancholy Merlin does manage to escape prison in 20 years, only to find his very own King Arthur: the bandit Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), whom he trains to become the new Zorro. Don Diego, meanwhile, becomes in effect the Old-New Zorro. They both bear king-sized grudges. Don Diego seeks vengeance on his old nemesis Montero, who not only sent our hero to the hoosegow but also killed his wife and adopted his baby daughter, Elena. Montero has now returned to California in a plot to buy it from the Mexicans and become its ruler. Alejandro, meantime, wants to eradicate Captain Harrison Love (Matthew Letscher), Montero's sadistic aide who murdered Alejandro's brother. How sadistic is he? Well, he offers alcohol to Alejandro -- from a jar containing the floating head of that same sibling!
It's clear that director Martin Campbell and screenwriters John Eskow, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio wanted to make a movie that is both sendoff and send-up. What they ended up with is romantic adventure-movie slapstick that's too screwy for the action crowd and too old-fashioned for the Home Alone contingent.
Watching it makes you yearn for the wonderful Douglas Fairbanks Zorro of the '20s, who delighted in his own ardent high jinks. It also makes you want to go out and rent that marvelous 1981 spoof Zorro, The Gay Blade, starring George Hamilton at his most camp-effete. (He changed Zorro's customary outfit of black to plum.)
Why resurrect Zorro now? After all, the Boomer generation that grew up on the old Disney TV series is too grayed to be much of a core audience for this sort of thing, and these days the kiddies' tastes run to heroes who are a bit more animatronic. In any case, the filmmakers don't seem to possess much nostalgia for Zorro. They've turned him into a kind of rompy Batman. The lair where Old-New Zorro teaches New Zorro is like the granddaddy of the Bat Cave; the black stallion Tornado is a four-legged Batmobile. There's something terribly expedient about grafting one pop-cult legend onto another. The commercialism has a souring effect.
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Banderas doesn't make an appearance until well into the movie, and he isn't transformed into the dashing Zorro -- as opposed to the pratfall Zorro -- until past the halfway mark. It would seem to be ideal casting, but Banderas is still a matinee idol in search of a matinee. Maybe one reason he's never made it as a star in a Hollywood movie is because his Latin charm has often been overplayed. He's been thrust into dumb-dumb movies where he was required to turn on the juice and reduce everybody to jelly. In the films he made for Pedro Almodovar, especially Law of Desire, Matador and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Banderas was employed as the shining icon in the director's camp-erotic operatic universe. His handsomeness was the centerpiece in Almodovar's passion plays. But in his American starring vehicles, including Desperado, Two Much and now The Mask of Zorro, he's a hunk without a halo. He seems adrift in the fluffy shenanigans.
As the grown-up Elena, the Welsh actress Catherine Zeta Jones has a wet-lipped prettiness that's reminiscent of Linda Darnell (who starred with Tyrone Power in the 1940 Mark of Zorro). She doesn't get to do much except stand around looking enameled and coy. Her big scene with Zorro -- a sword fight in which he eventually slices off all her clothes -- is marred by the filmmakers' calculated prudery. Elena is so covered up, throughout, that what might have been a funny-nasty erotic joke turns into a snigger for preteens. Wouldn't want to alienate that core audience, would we?
But then again, this is the kind of movie where all the men are supposed to have major cojones, and yet nobody, literally, seems to have them. For example, when the two Zorros land from a great height on their steeds, you don't hear so much as an ouch. I realize that heroism in the movies is all about the suspension of disbelief. But what if the movie in question is too stupid to sustain that suspension? If the people who made this movie had any balls, they would have made their Zorros castrati.
The Mask of Zorro.
Directed by Martin Campbell. With Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones and Stuart Wilson.