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With: Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Stuart Wilson, L.Q. Jones, Matthew Letscher, Maury Chaykin, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Matt Letscher
Written by: John Eskow, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, based on a story by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Randall Jahnson and on the character created by Johnston McCulley
Directed by: Martin Campbell
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense action and violence
Running Time: 136
Date: 07/17/1998

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Catching Z's

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Mask of Zorro, starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins, and directed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) is not so much a blood-pounding swashbuckling adventure as it is a comfortable old friend--the kind of movie your grandfather might have seen at a Saturday matinee.

The movie opens with the original Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega (Hopkins, along with a pretty obvious stunt double), preventing the evil Spanish governor of Mexico, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) from executing three innocent men. He is aided by two boys, one of whom will grow up to be Alejandro Murieta (Banderas). Later, Don Rafael kills Don Diego's wife, steals his baby daughter, and puts him in prison.

Twenty years later, the adult Banderas meets up with Hopkins, and begins training with him to become the new Zorro. To complicate matters, Banderas falls in love with Hopkins' fully grown daughter, the achingly beautiful Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who believes the evil Don Rafael is her real father. I was impressed that Elena didn't spend the movie screaming and getting kidnapped. Instead, she's tough, passionate, and resourceful. The great character actor L.Q. Jones (who was in The Wild Bunch) is also on board as the bandit Three-Fingered Jack.

This training and passing of the mantle is the only thing that distinguishes this movie from earlier Zorros. And, because it takes a while for him to get trained, it's 90 minutes before Banderas, fully suited up and ready for action, appears onscreen. (There are some other action scenes, but, darn it, it's just not the same without the black suit.) When he does finally appear, we've got prime Zorro action, and it feels like a refreshing dip in the pool.

The Mask of Zorro doesn't challenge us, doesn't break any new ground, or even make us think at all. It doesn't try any ironic twists on the Zorro theme, nor is it a spoof. It's just a simple Zorro story, where the bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and the women are beautiful. It reminded me of The Rocketeer (1991), which I enjoyed purely on an innocent entertainment level. In his review of The Rocketeer, Roger Ebert said "adjustments are necessary to enjoy it. You have to dial down, to return to an age of innocence." If it catches you in the right mood, The Mask of Zorro can make you feel 10 years old again, wide-eyed at the movies. It's a good movie for kids, too. There's some violence, but it's all cartoonish, nothing they can't handle.

Hopefully, The Mask of Zorro will put people in the mood to rent older Zorro movies, like the king of them all, The Mark of Zorro (1920), starring Douglas Fairbanks, an adaptation of the original 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley. (I'll say this about Antonio Banderas -- he's so good in the role, he actually comes close to Fairbanks; closer than anyone else ever has.) Fairbanks' goofy charm, reckless skill and crazy smile made him the best of all Zorros (he also did all his own stunts). Like 1989's Batman, he was just insane enough to put on a mask and try to fight crime.

Although Fairbanks played many heroes; Robin Hood, one of The Three Musketeers, and The Thief of Bagdad, Zorro was the only one he returned to for a sequel, Don Q Son of Zorro, made in 1925. Both these films are silents, and it will take a little patience to get kids to sit still at first, but Fairbanks should win them over fast enough.

Also worth checking out: the 1940 remake of The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power; a good French version, Zorro (1974) with the great Alain Delon; and the comedy spoof, Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981) with George Hamilton, which is really kind of dumb, but funny in parts.

The Mask of Zorro was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, a guy who knows how to show us a good time.

See also: The Legend of Zorro.

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