Courtesy Photo
136 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, July 17, 1998
Directed by Martin Campbell

Starring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stuart Wilson & Matt Letscher

Revitalized 'Zorro' still true to its roots

So you're a studio exec at TriStar Pictures and you've decided to revive Zorro, the swashbuckling 19th Century action hero from south of the border, because you've read a treatment and had an epiphany that Antonio Banderas is perfect for the part.

But the masked hero's legend is steeped in tradition, so a revival is a risky thing, doubly so since he has been retired from the screen for so long that ticket sales will depend on hyping him to a whole new generation.

You'll need thrill-a-minute modern action. You'll need contemporary sex appeal. But you'll need to make sure you cover all the Zorro prerequisites to appease the purists. So who you gonna call?

Martin Campbell.

As the director of "GoldenEye" Campbell is the man most directly responsible for the successful resurrection of James Bond. Evidently adept at balancing tradition with renovation, he seems to have an uncanny sense of what will make mothballed cinema icons jive with modern moviegoers.

What he did for Bond, he's done again in "The Mask of Zorro," a decidedly clever, if largely unoriginal, update in which Banderas inherits blade bravado duties from retired Zorro Anthony Hopkins and crosses swords with a coalition of nefarious Spaniards and Americans trying to take over colonial California.

Hopkins' Zorro open the film with a prologue in which he saves a handful of peasants from a public execution, bowing gallantly to the gathered masses who cheer as he deflates and defeats 100 soldiers in a energetic roundelay that would make Douglas Fairbanks, the original movie Zorro, proud.

This Zorro is apparently the Bruce Wayne of the 19th Century, since after dashing the Spaniards he gallops on his black steed back to a cave beneath his mansion, where he is about to resume his everyday identity as the wealthy Don Diego De La Vega when he is arrested by the despotic governor, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), who kills his wife and spirits away with his infant daughter, Elena.

Cut to 20 years later, where undisciplined swordsman and petty thief Alejandro Murrieta (Banderas) is out for vengeance against an American army captain who killed his brother after a payroll heist gone wrong.

He meets the destitute De La Vega, recently escaped from prison, and upon learning who he is, becomes his pupil, training to be the new Zorro so he can exact his retribution with style.

Banderas is just right for the part of the uncouth disciple in a blade-dandy "Pygmalion" sequence. He plays Alejandro's early, untapped ability and charm at least as well as he does Zorro's eventual sexy confidence.

But the irrepressible Hopkins, who with his tremendous, effortless talent can convey as much with a knowing smile as Banderas can with a whole page of dialogue, owns these scenes and nearly steals the whole movie with a wickedly dashing air of honor and chivalry.

At the same time, baddie Montero returns from two decades in Spain with his "daughter" in tow -- the now unbelievably gorgeous and fiery Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who takes a shine to Alejandro while he is posing as an aristocrat.

Zeta-Jones has a spicy, electric aura about her, and it's hard not to be dumbstruck by her looks -- but she's talented, too. Her father-daughter revelation with Hopkins is as engaging as her romantic chemistry with Banderas, with whom she share a ribald dance number and a steamy sword fight, highly charged with sexual overtones.

"The Mask of Zorro" is largely fabulous style (grand production design, rich costumes and a burning sunset color palate) over recycled substance, but it's the enthusiastic leads and fantastically spirited swordplay that carry the picture.

The two Zorros eventually find themselves combating an illegal gold-mining operation, engineered (conveniently) by both their nemeses to fund their California revolution. This, of course, leads to several zippy blade-clashing confrontations, abundant with traditional balcony-jumping and chandelier-swinging but fueled by heavy-duty, 1990s adrenaline and a lively sense of humor.

The movie's climax is an inevitable dual duel (complete with the expected dodge-and-parry witticisms) involving both Zorros and their adversaries, the girl, some dynamite and a couple hundred indentured mine workers. The scene is spectacular, although it really pushes the suspension of disbelief factor.

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