Martin Campbell is largely known as the Director who, personally, handled the two recent Bond reboots – first Pierce Brosnan’s return of Bond, after a 6-year hiatus, 1995’s Goldeneye; then, after Brosnan’s departure and a further 4-year break (the two longest pauses in the Bond cycle since its inception 48 years ago), the massive Daniel Craig reboot vehicle, Casino Royale. Between Bond movies, he visited another fairly popular franchise, bringing to the Big Screen the fictional comic-book, film and TV series character, Zorro. Pioneering swashbuckling movies even back in 1920, by 1998 it had been over a decade since the last even semi-decent sword-fighting adventure, and The Legend of Zorro marked the start of the third Zorro film cycle – the first was in the ‘20s with Douglas Fairbanks, and the second in the ‘30s with Errol Flynn. The new Zorro was Antonio Banderas, fresh off his success for Robert Rodriguez in Desperado. But could the new Campbell/Banderas production really stand up to all those classics of days gone by?
It’s 1821, the height of the Mexican War of Independence, and Zorro, a masked bandit, fights against the Spanish Government for the freedom of the poor Mexican villagers. His main target: Governor Don Rafael Montero, the corrupt Governor of the region that would soon become known as California. Unable to stop the Robin Hood-esque hero-of-the-people, when Montero discovers Zorro’s real identity, he goes after him and his family, and the legend is destroyed. Twenty years later and Montero is now pushing to turn California into an independent republic. Don Diego De La Vega – the man who was once Zorro – having been imprisoned by Montero for the past two decades, hears about the corrupt official’s return, and decides that it is time for the Legend to return. But complications arise when he realises that the young girl who Montero parades around as his own daughter, is actually De La Vega’s long-lost child, forcing De La Vega to come up with a new plan of attack, one that may involve a young thief apprentice, a man who may just be fit to take up the mantle of Zorro, the masked avenger.
The Mask of Zorro is undeniably great fun. Martin Campbell gets the mix just right, developing an interesting series of character-driven story-arcs, perfectly utilising a colourful period setting, and providing action-adventure in a way that compares more to Indiana Jones (or even, more recently, The Rock) than the latest action efforts. For the last decade things have been all-too serious for the period action-adventure, culminating in Ridley Scott’s botched attempt to take a ‘realistic’ look at Robin Hood this year. We’ve lost all of the fun in our movies; fun nowadays equals comedy, and then you’re falling into Pirates of the Caribbean sequel territory in terms of quality. Campbell knew just how to mount a decent production, which could entertain adults as much as it amazed families.
In this regard perhaps his best decision was probably to cast Anthony Hopkins in the role of the ‘real’ Zorro, the exiled Don Diego De La Vega, who returns only to set things straight with his arch-nemesis, and open his daughter’s eyes to the truth. He is Zorro. And this is key to the story, grounding the adventure with Hopkin’s measured turn as the ageing hero, and juxtaposing it with the brash rough-around-the-edges behaviour of his counterpart, the thief played by Antonio Banderas. Banderas plays it just right, taking quite a while to become likeable – and skilful – in his own right, and always a second behind De La Vega’s witty dialogue. Their relationship is reminiscent of the similar situation in The Rock, where Sean Connery’s ageing SAS operative is partnered up with Nicholas Cage’s inexperienced desk agent (ironic when you consider that Connery was first choice for Hopkin’s role, a year before he went on to do The Rock).
Amidst the various supporting roles we get Lethal Weapon 3 villain Stuart Wilson hamming it up as the dastardly Governor Montero, and Catherine Zeta Jones at her peak – beautiful, feisty and seductive in equal measure – as De La Vega’s estranged daughter. It was her breakthrough performance – the one that really put her on Hollywood’s radar – it’s just a shame that she didn’t cement her position there with quality acting, and instead will likely be best remembered for that scene in Entrapment and for being married to Michael Douglas. Still, this is Hopkins’ baby from start to finish, with Banderas there as a good foil, to play to the movie’s My Fair Lady / The Rock themes, and Zeta Jones on hand for the nicely-handled romantic element.
The action setpieces are really quite enjoyable too – never over-serious, not in the slightest bit bloody, but also with enough consequence to have you engaged in what is going on. And you get to see everything you want to see from Zorro – in both of his incarnations – from the use of his whip to snatch rifles out of the arms of his enemies, to the use of his sword to draw the letter ‘Z’ into his enemies. Zorro takes no pleasure in killing, but he takes great pleasure in embarrassing his opponents, and it’s this aspect of his derring-do that has remained endearing over the best part of the Century. That and his Robin Hood-esque take on corrupt rulers and the rights of the common folk, something which is at the core of the narrative here.
The Mask of Zorro remains one of the last quality action adventures, offering up in equal measure family fun, engaging characterisation, entertaining action and witty banter, all combining to create a rip-roaring period masked avenger romp (helped no end by James ‘Gladiator’ Horner’s rousing score). It superbly rebooted a character who had been made legend several times before on the Big Screen, and brought him to modern audiences with panache and charisma. The film would be followed, seven years later, by The Legend of Zorro, also Directed by Campbell and reuniting stars Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Unfortunately, with less energy, chemistry and substance (the lack of a dominant presence like Hopkins was noticeable), the magic was largely gone, even if it remained a vapidly entertaining sequel. The Mask of Zorro, however, remains a great, fun, action adventure, grounded in decent performances, an engaging script and some enjoyable set-pieces. Not quite a timeless classic, it has stood the test of time for more than 12 years now, and – to this day – remains supremely entertaining.
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