by Alexandre Paquin
Apart from Catherine Zeta-Jones, there is not much of interest in this 1998 Zorro film, the first in nearly two decades. Anthony Hopkins is miscast, Antonio Banderas is atrociously overacting, James Horner's music is useless except as a cure for insomnia, and the familiar theme of revenge is handled with all the lightness of melted lead. Needless to say, older Zorro films are better.When crime journalist Johnston McCulley created the character of Zorro in his story The Curse of Capistrano, serialized in the "All-Story Weekly" in August and September 1919, he could scarcely have imagined how popular his character would become over the years. The fact that renowned screen actor Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.) chose to portray the mysterious outlaw in his first swashbuckler film, "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), certainly helped matters. This silent film managed to influence the visual aspect of Zorro and McCulley's writings as well, and would perpetuate the popularity of the masked outlaw in print and on the screen. Nowadays everyone has heard about Don Diego Vega, the apparently foppish nobleman, fighting injustice in Spanish California by night as Zorro, mostly because of television and cinema.
"The Legend Has Returned ?"
Over the years, Zorro would be portrayed on film by players ranging from B actors to major Hollywood stars -- including a woman in the serial "Zorro's Black Whip" (1944). One of the most prestigious productions of the sound era was Twentieth Century-Fox's "The Mark of Zorro" (1940), starring Tyrone Power, but it was really the serial format which drew on the popularity of McCulley's character, as four serials were released by Republic Pictures, a studio specializing in the format, along with one feature film, "The Bold Caballero" (1936), which also had the distinction of being Republic's first colour film.
With the arrival of television, Zorro was adapted to the small screen in the Disney series that ran from 1957 to 1959 and starred Guy Williams in the title role. It was so popular that it transformed our conception of the character, as Zorro became tamer in order to be appropriate for children. Two feature films starring Williams were assembled using material from the series, only increasing the popularity of the product. Distributed worldwide, the television series led to the production of cheaply-made foreign films, mostly in Italy, Spain and Mexico. One spoof, 1981's "Zorro the Gay Blade" starring George Hamilton, and a quasi-porn film, "The Erotic Adventures of Zorro" (1972), also benefitted from the popularity of the character, and over the years, new Zorro television series were aired.
What the "Zorro" television series led to, however, was merchandizing. While McCulley had drawn upon the popularity of the character to write as many as sixty-five Zorro stories between 1919 and 1959, other writers soon capitalized on the success of the masked outlaw, even during McCulley's lifetime. After his death, the publication of Zorro stories soared, although McCulley's writings would decrease in availability. As of writing, only the original The Curse of Capistrano, now re-named "The Mark of Zorro", is still in print. Some of McCulley's other stories have been rewritten by others to make up for the average prose of the originals. As a result of the Disney television series, the rest of the books featuring Zorro in print are mostly children's adventure books. The increase in popularity of the character also led to the creation of new Zorro television series (both live action and animation). And in recent years, a number of plays and even musicals featuring Zorro have been performed. Countless other products based on Zorro has been released, ranging from cheap products such as T-shirts and wallets, which have since then become collectibles (sometimes fetching tidy sums), to more expensive items, such as an exact replica of the whip used by Anthony Hopkins in "The Mask of Zorro".
In other words, Zorro now means big bucks. And to regulate the use of the character, there is Zorro Productions, Inc, which "controls various trademarks and copyrights in the name, visual likeness, and character of Zorro."
While Zorro thrived on television during the 1980's and 1990's, the last feature film before 1998 was the parody "Zorro the Gay Blade" (1981). Then, in 1998, a major production, "The Mask of Zorro", was made by Amblin Entertainment and released by Tristar, with a first-rate cast led by Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas, along with an actress on her way to stardom, Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was a critical and financial success of such magnitude that a sequel is under way. Unfortunately, "The Mask of Zorro" pales in comparison with the 1940 Twentieth Century-Fox version of the Zorro story, and with other fine swashbuckler films. In other words, the latest adventure of Zorro on the large screen, the first in nearly two decades, is disappointing.
In 1821, California, still a Spanish colony, is about to be transferred to the fledgling nation of Mexico. The governor of California, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), under orders to return in Spain, refuses to leave his post, and must face a popular rebellion. The aging Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), who had been fighting against Montero's oppressive regime for years as Zorro, returns to help the people. But that night, as Don Diego is at home with his wife Esperanza and his daughter Elena, still a baby, Montero enters the house and comes to arrest Don Diego, whom he now knows is Zorro. In the struggle, Diego's wife, whom Montero had once loved, is killed, and his house burns down. Montero takes the child with him and raises her as his own, and Diego is put in jail.
Twenty years have passed, and Diego is still in jail when Montero unexpectedly returns to California, still part of Mexico but growing dissatisfied with the Mexican rule. Diego successfully escapes and sets on finding Montero and assassinating him at the first opportunity. But he soon finds out that his daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), now in her twenties, believes that Montero is her father, and refrains from killing him as a result. At approximately the same time, the brothers Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) and Joaquin Murrieta, a duo of outlaws, are chased by Montero's right-arm man, Captain Love (Matt Letscher), and after Joaquin is killed by Love (well, actually Joaquin killed himself before Love could kill him), Alejandro is set on revenge.
Alejandro then meets Diego, whose life he had saved twenty years before, and Diego decides to teach Alejandro fencing, along with etiquette and charm lessons, à la Pygmalion. With Alejandro's help, Diego is to find out about the reason of Montero's return, and the best place for doing so is a banquet held by Montero. There, Alejandro falls in love with Elena (whom he had met before when he was in disguise), and learns more about Montero's plans. Montero is to make of California an independent republic by purchasing it from the Mexican authorities with gold from a mine that, in theory, would belong to the Mexican government, but of which the authorities are unaware. But, as it turns out, the mine is in operation thanks to slave labour, and therefore, inevitably, both Diego and Alejandro have a righteous cause to pursue: to shut down the mine, while looking for vengeance against Captain Love and Montero.
There is of course nothing particularly innovative in this plot, and it is expected, because of the nature of the story, but also because of the old Hollywood formula, which invariably states that there must be a love story between the protagonists, a villain (or more) that audiences want to see brought down, a revenge theme used over and over again in film nowadays, tons of explosives in the final fighting sequence, and a happy ending which may nevertheless include the death of one of the heroes. "The Mask of Zorro" sticks to convention as much as if it were some dogma that must be followed to the letter, which would have been fine had it been light-hearted from beginning to finish, but unfortunately, the film seems to have been made with a heavy hand, and in the end, the audience is overwhelmed and exhausted, without really feeling any better than before seeing it, because everything, ranging from the action scenes to the romance, looks overdone.
No doubt in the hope of remedying the solemnity of the picture, humorous and feel-good elements were included, but they look terribly out of place. Alejandro is a bumbling fool, which is more evident when he is disguised as Zorro. Alejandro swears at his horse, and makes wisecracks at Captain Love, makes stupid mistake after stupid mistake, and crowds shout "Zorro!" as if they were at a rock concert. Sure, the peasants had been doing just that in "Zorro, the Gay Blade", but that was done as a parody, not seriously as in "The Mask of Zorro". However, for audiences who have grown up watching Guy Williams as Zorro carving Z's in Sergeant Garcia's clothes, Zorro must be humorous, but surprisingly, in this film, the two main villains, Don Rafael Montero and Captain Love, are not the fools one would imagine them to be. The attempt at humour mixes badly with the atmosphere of the film (heavy throughout), the general plot (with the emphasis on revenge), and the casting of Hopkins. It seems that the writers of the film were unable to decide whether the film would be for kids or adults, and decided to go for both, strictly for box-office prospects. In fact, two books based on the film were released, one version for children, and one for adults.
Unlike Alejandro's Zorro, Don Diego's is much closer to the pre-Disney television series character than any other portrayal in recent films, and at first, his sole objective for being Zorro is to fight against oppression, not for revenge. Of course, this changes quickly during the film, as Zorro is set on revenge against the man whom he once fought. And it is no wonder why Anthony Hopkins was cast in the part. Grand old actors who bring class, distinction and depth to any role they play are a rarity these days, and Hopkins is by far the best-known in this category. But Hopkins is miscast.
Why? Because we have been accustomed to seeing this splendid actor in parts which are truly psychological, not merely giving an impression of depth. Audiences have seen Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs", "Howards End", "Nixon", and my favourite, "The Remains of the Day", in parts that were truly three-dimensional with real psychological depth. Don Diego de la Vega, unfortunately, belongs to a subject which is hardly known for its flawed heroes. Hopkins is cast to make the film look deeper than it really is, and at times, the impression is deceptive, but beneath the initial gloss, the depth of Hopkins's part, and of the picture, is not much beyond that of a piece of cardboard. Once the illusion has vanished, one realizes that Hopkins does not belong in this film, that he is merely used to fool the audience into believing that they are watching a film Shakespeare himself could have penned. Please note, however, that Hopkins is not bad. He does his best in the part, but apart from the first minutes of the film -- the original Zorro's last appearance --, he looks completely out of place, not really fitting within an action film, and in a part not deep enough to fully exploit his talents.
And what about Antonio Banderas, Hollywood's latest version of the "latin lover"? Judging from his appearance as Alejandro in this film, Banderas has yet to learn that to be a "latin lover" in the tradition of Rudolph Valentino, Cesar Romero, Fernando Lamas or Ricardo Montalban, it takes much, much more than good looks and Hispanic origins. It takes, first and foremost, talent, and in "The Mask of Zorro", he demonstrates that he has close to none. All we see is Banderas goofing around as Zorro, looking clumsy or overacting in every scene; he is annoying in the action scenes and drab in the romantic sequences. He pales in comparison with Catherine Zeta-Jones.
"The Mask of Zorro" transformed Zeta-Jones from a virtually unknown actress into a glamorous superstar, and her performance in this film truly explains why. She is radiant as Elena, a lovely woman with a determination apparently made of steel. She is unforgettable in the part, and she sparkles more than both male stars.
On the villainous side, Stuart Wilson's portrayal of Don Rafael Montero is noteworthy, not falling into the trap of an over-the-top performance, which is unlike so many actors playing villainous parts in recent years. Montero is a subtle man, hiding his real thoughts behind a hypocritical smile. Unlike Wilson, Matt Letscher as Captain Love is much closer to the stereotype mentioned above, but he manages to stay away from it for most of the picture, and he does have the merit of having blond hair, a characteristic very scarce, it seems, among film villains.
This Zorro film differs from most by its setting, at least twenty years later than most other stories. Unfortunately, it mixes fact and fiction with difficulty, running back and forth in history, paying no particular attention to accuracy. If these inaccuracies were secondary to the plot, one could have overlooked them, but as they affect elements at the core of the story, their impact on the picture has to be negative. For instance, what is Captain Love, clearly from the US Cavalry, doing in California in 1841, still officially part of Mexico? And why is he supporting Montero in his independence plans? One clear response could be that while a war was going on between the United States and Mexico, Love was giving the impression of supporting Montero while promoting annexation to the United States, or perhaps this had been Montero's goal from the start. After all, Texas had declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and would be incorporated in the United States in 1845. But Captain Love's political motives are never even discussed in the entire film, and there is not a hint of evidence suggesting that Montero wanted annexation to the United States. Therefore, what remains is a historical charade: what was Captain Love doing there?
Here is what this author believes to be the answer: A Captain Love indeed existed, but he belonged to a later period. In the 1850's, therefore after California had joined the United States (in 1848), the State Governor hired one Captain Harry S. Love, to track down a bandit named Joaquin Murrieta, along with his lieutenant, Three-Fingered Jack (also present in the film). When they were captured, Love kept, as in the film, the head of the former and the hand of the latter in glass bottles. As far as it is known, Joaquin Murrieta had no brother who took up highway robbery, but it is clear that this incident has entered the film with very slight modifications to the basic facts. Joaquin Murrieta, with his aristocratic background, is also often considered to be at the origin of McCulley's Zorro. As such, the insertion of Murrieta and Captain Love to the plot of "The Mask of Zorro" was inventive, but the writers failed to realize that the presence of Captain Love could not easily be explained in a story that took place ten years earlier. They just decided to go along with it, hoping that no one would notice.
While the dialogue is mostly passable, the film is slow in pace, and interest is only maintained with a few action sequences here and there in the picture. The action sequences are mostly well-done, but sometimes are exaggerated. Part of the plot does not make much sense, for example Don Diego still being a fine blade after twenty years in jail -- the place least likely to offer fencing lessons --, McCulley's contribution (oh, merely creating the character of Zorro) is relegated to the bottom of the ending credits, the direction by Martin Campbell is heavy, and Oscar-winning composer James Horner provides a score that oscillates between the soporific and the bombastic, never with the right mood at the right time. While Catherine Zeta-Jones sparkles, Antonio Banderas is inept, and Anthony Hopkins was cast to give the impression that the film had any depth, but it has none whatsoever. Zorro is Zorro, after all."The Mask of Zorro" is slick and perfunctory, artificial and shallow. All of it reeks of arrogance, and there are better time-wasting options out there.
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originally posted: 12/12/01 01:48:13