Back in 1998, there was a worldwide shortage of good, old fashioned swashbuckling costume adventures. Fortunately 'The Mask of Zorro' was released in the nick of time to help fulfil that requirement and succeeded admirably at the box office. Since then, we've seen it on VHS and DVD, but now Zorro swings into action on Blu-ray.
With a cast including Antonio Banderas (for the ladies), Anthony Hopkins (to lend the film some acting nobility) and Catherine Zeta Jones (for some Welsh eye candy) - the movie had a lot going for it.
Now, as there hadn't been a Zorro movie in a while, a reboot was deemed necessary so director Martin Campbell was wheeled in - fresh from his success in jump starting the Bond franchise with 'Goldeneye'.
The result was a rousing, spirited action flick with a credible story and generous amount of humour.
The movie opens with the original Zorro (Hopkins) arriving in a village to stop the execution of three innocent Mexican peasants by the evil Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson).
With a fine display of gymnastics, he whips out his weapon and dispatches the inept Spanish troops before riding off into the sunset.
Back in the guise of Don Diego de la Vega, our hero is saying goodnight to his baby daughter Elena when he is interrupted by Montero and his men who have worked out that he is the man behind the mask of Zorro. In the ensuing struggle Don Diego's wife is killed, his home torched and his daughter falls into the hands of his enemy.
So begins a tale of revenge ...
Years later, a bedraggled Don Diego escapes from prison and befriends the young Alejandro Murrieta (Banderas) who is also seeking vengeance for the murder of his brother by Montero's men. As the older Zorro begins to train his successor, Don Deigo is reunited with his, now grown, daughter (Catherine Zeta-Jones) having been raised as the daughter of Montero.
With Zorro the younger re-establishing himself as a local hero, it's discovered that Montero is hatching a plot to buy California from General Santa Anna using gold that is mined from his own land. Naturally Zorro won't let this go unpunished so they decide to free the slave workers, stop Montero, and get revenge all at once. But will they succeed?
Anthony Hopkins is in fine form as the original Zorro and plays his scenes with the necessary gravitas to make it all believable. Even the scenes where he's leaping about are credible due to the way they're tightly cut as Sir Tone was no spring chicken, even back in 1998. I recall him telling the Press, with a straight face and a twinkle in his eye, that he had done all his own stuntwork.
Antonio Bandyarse - sorry that should read Banderas, plays the young Alejandro with a fine flair for comedy and he looks good in the action scenes. The cast were all taught to fence by veteran British Fencing master Bob Anderson and most did their own sword action scenes.
Now, Catherine Zeta Jones has never looked more beautiful than she does in this movie. Her close-ups reveal an unblemished 'peaches and cream' complexion and her eyes are dark brown pools. She plays the feisty Elena who joins in the fighting and proves herself a great foil for Banderas as Zorro.
A film of this kind would be no good without a hissable bad guy and British actor Stuart Wilson delivers this in spades as Montero - who is clearly just one of life's mis-understood characters. He's not the kind to get his hands dirty though. No Sirree! For this he enlists the aid of professional soldier Captain Harrison Love played by Matt Letscher. Now this is one truly detestable guy who even keeps the head of someone he's killed in a big jar of alcohol in his office, inviting guests to imbibe thereof. I suppose it's more stylish than a drinks cabinet.
You build up such a dislike of this guy that you really want to see him get his just desserts. But will the young Zorro be up to the task?
Overall, this is a great 'Boy's Own' adventure with some fairly stereotypical characters but you get so involved in the fun that you don't mind. A fine, rousing score by James Horner serves to heighten the drama and provide great swells of triumph in the action sequences.
Martin Campbell's directorial style brings with it a freshness and pace that helps make the story palatable for a modern audience. 'The Mask of Zorro' is something rare in film making today as, like many of the old Saturday morning serials from the 40's and 50's, it uses wide shots during the sword fights so you're able to see each thrust and parry unlike many more recent films where it's hard to make out what is going on due to everything being so tightly framed. Phil Meheux's camera work and lighting lends the whole film a look of high quality while the authentic costumes combine with the sets in creating the perfect period feel.
The movie never flags as there's always a new element being introduced to hold the attention - be it a new character, a new source of danger or a new conflict. Mr Campbell knows his onions - and probably a few carrots too!
The important thing that has been remembered here is that a big, family oriented thrill ride should be fun. If only more films were made with this in mind.
This film re-defined the character of Zorro as a box-office attraction, although it would be another seven years before a (less successful) sequel fought its way on to the cinema screens.
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