In The Mask of Zorro, Anthony Hopkins plays the eponymous masked man 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 cheer him on or titter. This dolorous Don Diego de la Vega -- who fights Spanish oppression in California in the early 1800s as the legendary Zorro -- seems way too bummed-out to be flashing his sword, snapping his whip, swinging across parapets, and dodging bullets. When he's finally captured and thrown in prison by the territory's governor, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), all you can think is, What luck! Now he can really enjoy being miserable.
This melancholy Merlin escapes from prison after twenty years, at which point he finds his very own King Arthur: the bandit Alejandro Murieta (Antonio Banderas), whom he trains to become the new Zorro. Don Diego, meanwhile, becomes in effect the old-new Zorro. They both bear king-size grudges. Don Diego seeks vengeance on his old nemesis Montero, who not only sent him to the hoosegow but also killed his wife and adopted his baby daughter Elena. Montero now wants to buy California and become its ruler. Alejandro, meantime, wants to eradicate Montero's sadistic aide, Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), 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 brother.
It's clear that director Martin Campbell and screenwriters John Eskow, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio want to make a movie that is both sendoff and sendup. What they end up with is a 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 movies of the Twenties, in which the character delighted in his own ardent hijinks. 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. (Instead of the customary black, his getup was a resplendent plum.)
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Why resurrect Zorro now? After all, the boomer generation that grew up watching Disney's Zorro TV series in the early Sixties is too gray 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 feel much nostalgia for Zorro. They've turned him into a kind of rompy Batman. The lair where old-new Zorro teaches new Zorro looks 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.
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. He would seem to be ideal casting, but he fails to convince. Maybe one reason he has never made it as a star in a Hollywood movie is because his Latin charm has often been overplayed. He has been thrust into dumb-dumb movies in which he has been 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 Mark of Zorro in 1940). She doesn't get to do much except stand around looking enameled and coy. Her big scene with Banderas's Zorro -- they engage in a sword fight, and he eventually slices off all her clothes -- is marred by the filmmakers' calculated prudery. Elena is so covered up throughout the proceedings 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?
The Mask of Zorro.
Directed by Martin Campbell. Written by John Eskow, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio. Starring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Stuart Wilson.