The Mask of Zorro
December 17, 2019
2 Hrs., 16 Mins.
he Mask of Zorro (1998) is a throwback to the days when action movies mostly starred swashbucklers — masked men with swords and capes (plus charisma and dashing good looks) who saved the exploited from exploitation. The film is a delightful pastiche. But unlike a lot of other pastiches it doesn’t feel detrimentally reliant on what it’s trying to imitate. Instead it’s a savvy scion — a product reverent of the
past but not stuck in it.
What we also like about the movie is that it recognizes that what makes an action movie great is not so much its size and spectacle (though this Zorro has a lot of both) but its sincerity. We sense that if its budget were cut in half it would have the same effect on us, as long as the feeling that it’s been sweat over as well as the go-for-broke physicality remained. It’s an action movie that has picked up old tools and polished them. Here they gleam.
The Zorro of the title, like Robin Hood, is a disguised vigilante who roughs up the rich to give back to the people they oppress. After every dalliance during which he’s the leader of the productive mayhem, he carves a “Z” into a nearby landmark. At the beginning of the film, which spans the 1820s to the ‘40s, Zorro is embodied by Anthony Hopkins. Here he portrays Don Diego de la Vega — the Mexican nobleman who first moonlighted as the masked hero. After a triumph in the film’s prologue, though, tragedy ends his long-running victory streak. De la Vega’s wife is accidentally killed during a battle with some enemies, his daughter Elena is kidnapped, and he’s thrown into prison.
The public is left vulnerable. (The film takes place in Las Californias during the Mexican War of Independence.) The feature picks up again when de la Vega escapes from prison 20 years later — a move sparked by the return to Las Californias by Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), the crooked Spanish governor responsible for the events which ruined de la Vega’s life. The politician, who has been residing in his native Spain a few years now, has, we learn, been secretly keeping tabs on gold mines on Mexican soil, and is planning on using the funds to buy out California.
Now too old to put back on the Zorro mask, cape, and hat (remaining are his squirrel-sharp instincts but gone is his spryness), de la Vega recruits a local — a small-time criminal named Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) — to take over the role. The selection is pointed. Alejandro once helped de la Vega out during a brawl in childhood (something we see during the prologue), and their incidental reunion is, to de la Vega, a sign of some kind.
In the movie, de la Vega and Alejandro essentially become tasked with stopping the ruthless and unfortunately very smart Montero. There are other rewards to this. Alejandro now has an opportunity to best Montero’s wingman (Matt Letscher), who killed his brother, and de la Vega is closer to reuniting with the now-adult Elena (played now by Catherine Zeta-Jones), who has grown up thinking Montero is her father all these years. (Almost inevitably, a love connection forms between Elena and Alejandro.)
The Mask of Zorro has the horsepower of a saga or epic. But it maintains an episodic lightness. It feels a bit like a series of vignettes, only a final showdown connecting it all is imminent. (It’s no surprise that the Zorro tales, which originated decades earlier, were channeled into a TV series in the 1950s.) The film should feel long at almost two and a half hours, but it’s been made and acted engagingly. Director Martin Campbell helms with as much attention to the period iconography (oscillating from palatial lushness to Western-movie grit) as he does the film’s near-balletic action sequences. The actors, particularly Banderas, who’s the right kind of athletic and who plays his Zorro with an Errol Flynn-esque sense of eagerness and wit, charm us.
Although the best moments in the film, I think, rely on chemistry — specifically the chemistry established by Zeta-Jones and Banderas. There’s a great scene where Alejandro hides out in a church’s confessional and Elena admits, unknowingly to her choice suitor, that she’s romantically intrigued by a certain masked vigilante running around, then another where they have a moment on a dance floor at a ball that could make the building go up in flames. Their peak arrives during a middle-of-the-movie sword fight in a stable, where their attempts to cut each other up are more and more interrupted by a sexual charge.
The movie is a quasi-anachronistic pleasure. It’s especially fun to watch now, with this kind of practical-effects-driven action filmmaking growing progressively outmoded. (A funny thing, since in 1998 this was looked at as a marriage of nostalgia and the forward-thinking new.) Though I can’t finish up the review without admitting that it did vex me that Banderas, who is Spanish, and Hopkins and Zeta-Jones, who are Welsh, have been cast as Mexicans. The white-washing bakes in a cynicism that didn’t have to be there. Still, The Mask of Zorro is the sort of sporting blockbuster I miss. An irony, since that sentiment was in part a reason it was greenlit at all. A-