The illustrious character of Zorro first made his mark in 1919's "The Curse of Capistrano", a serialized piece of pulp fiction written by Johnston McCulley, a police-reporter-turned-author. This elusive champion of the underdog (aptly named, with 'zorro' the Spanish word for 'fox') was a combination of the Scarlet Pimpernel (as seen in "The Elusive Pimpernel"), Robin Hood, and some Mexican folk heroes, such as Jose Maria Avila, the Mexican bandit and revolutionary. One year later, this masked avenger graced the silver screen in "The Mark of Zorro", which starred Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in the title role. In 1937, the story of Zorro became material for a series of film serials at matinees, and another "The Mark of Zorro" movie starring Basil Rathbone and Linda Darnell hit the big screen. Guy Williams then donned the black cloak and mask for a Disney "Zorro" television series during the Fifties. And now, from Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, is the latest screen incarnation of this debonair figure, "The Mask of Zorro", the first Hollywood "Zorro" movie in four decades. And befitting of a new vehicle for introducing a whole new generation of moviegoers to Zorro, this version's take on the legend has an 'old' Zorro passing the torch to a 'new' one.
Do you know how to use that thing?
Pointy end goes into the other man.
This is going to take a lot of work.
It is 1821, and the cruel Spanish governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), who presides over what is now modern California, is about to execute three peasants, much to the ire of the gathered crowd. This boisterous gathering is watched intently by two young brothers, who wait for the appearance of Zorro. Surely enough, the masked man does appear, much to the chagrin of Montero. Before riding off into the sunset, having set the three prisoners free, Zorro gives one of the brothers a momento of the occasion-- an amulet. Zorro then retreats to his hacienda, where his secret identity is revealed-- he is Don Diego De La Vega (Anthony Hopkins of "The Edge"), a nobleman with noble causes. With a loving wife at his side and an infant daughter, Elena, Vega is content to hang up the mask for good and retire. However, his retirement plans are cut short when Montero arrives at his front door to arrest him. In the ensuing scuffle, Vega is imprisoned, his wife is killed, and Elena is 'adopted' by Montero. And so the legend of Zorro falls silent.
Zorro was here! He came and left!
Then you must have seen what he looked like.
No, but he was young... and vigorous!
Yes, vigorous. Very vigorous!
However, twenty years later, Montero returns with an ambitious plan to create a free and independent California. At his side is his 'daughter' Elena (a feature film debut for Catherine Zeta Jones), who has grown up into a beautiful woman. Vega, who has been locked away for two decades, escapes his imprisonment and sets about to avenge the death of his wife and the theft of his daughter. He comes across a ne'er-do-well thief, Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas of "Evita"), who happens to be the surviving brother of the boy that Vega gave the amulet twenty years prior. Returning to the long-abandoned lair where he once engineered his daring feats of heroism, Vega grooms Murrieta to become a new champion of justice for the people... a new Zorro. And though Murrieta is a bit green around the gills, he is determined to succeed, as it will be his means of avenging his brother, who died at the hands of Captain Love (Matt Lescher), Montero's right-hand man. However, the parallel revenge schemes are complicated by the presence of Elena-- Vega desperately wants to become reacquainted with his estranged daughter, and Murrieta falls head-over-heels in love with her.
"The Mask of Zorro" is all that you would expect-- a dashing and dazzling display of heroics and derring-do, abounding with swordplay antics and romantic intrigue, reminiscent of the halcyon days of Errol Flynn. Director Martin Campbell ("Goldeneye") knows where to place the camera to capture the excitement of the elaborate action sequences, while still being able to bring out sufficiently dramatic performances from his actors without crossing the line into anachronistic cheesiness. Though this film is relatively 'low tech' compared to more recent theatrical offerings, there is more than enough eye candy to delight, including elaborately-choreographed fight sequences (without becoming gratuitously violent), playfully erotic scenes between Jones and Banderas, and irreverent humor (often at the expense of the 'new' Zorro, who thinks he knows more than he actually does).
You also couldn't ask for a better crew of actors to pull this rollicking adventure off. As the older Zorro, Hopkins brings an air of self-confidence and refined poise, commanding not only the attention of his protege during training sessions, but also of the audience. Banderas has all the inherent qualities to effectively portray the younger Zorro-- devilishly-handsome looks, irresistible charisma, physical prowess, and a larger-than-life screen presence. Likewise, not only is Jones easy on the eyes, but this enchanting beauty is able to meet the more physical aspects of the role with finesse, most notably a smoldering sword fight in the second act.
They certainly don't make movies like this anymore. Like "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "The Mask of Zorro" takes a long-forgotten action-adventure art-form and reinvents it in a very crowd-pleasing manner. This grand production, with all its wit and charm, is sure to win some new followers to the legend of Zorro.