The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Antonio Banderas buckles his swash as Zorro

Director: Martin Campbell

Cast: Antonio Banderas (Alejandro Murrieta/Zorro), Anthony Hopkins (Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro), Catherine Zeta Jones (Elena Montero), Stuart Wilson (Don Rafael Montero), Matt Letscher (Captain Harrison Love), Tony Amendola (Don Luiz), Pedro Armendáriz Jnr (Don Pedro), LQ Jones (Three Fingered Jack), Julieta Rosen (Esperanza De La Vega), Maury Chaykin (Prison Warden)

Zorro is a classic, musketeers/Robin Hood style hero from the old school. A dashing, duelling nobleman who battles the cruel rich to save the struggling poor. It’s the formula of a thousand post-war B-movies. The great thing about that formula is the sense of fun around them is already there – a decent film can capture it. And The Mask of Zorro manages to be lot more than just a decent film.

In 1821, as the Spanish leave California, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) sets a trap to defeat his arch-nemesis Zorro (Anthony Hopkins). Knowing his real identity is Don Diego de la Vega, Montero throws de la Vega into prison after accidentally killing his wife (the woman they both loved) and kidnapping de la Vega’s daughter to raise as his own. Twenty years later, de la Vega escapes just as Montero returns to California to steal its resources. De la Vega teams up with Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), a young bandit hungry for revenge. Taking him under his wing, he trains him as the new Zorro – though both have conflicted feelings when de la Vega’s daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) arrives, knowing nothing of her true heritage.

Few films have captured the magic, Errol Flynn-style thrills of old-school Hollywood swashbuckling as well as The Mask of Zorro. Characters swoop and tumble, and swords swish and clash. It sounds odd to say, but the sound design for the sword fights is amazing, each clash has a metallic, ringing clarity that sounds incredibly cool. Match that with the fact that all five of the principals have clearly spent their time in sword school, and you’ve got pure, sword-clashing entertainment.

The plot also keeps things simple. The story is a fairly straight forward heroic revenge drama, with more than a touch of The Count of Monte Cristo (de la Vega’s prison escape is pure Dumas, while Murrieta disguising himself as a rich don to destroy his enemies from within is straight out of Cristo’s playbook). We also have (in another Monte Cristo touch) the Pygmalion mentor-pupil relationship, with de la Vega tutoring Murrieta not only in sword play, but also the manners of a gentleman. The villain’s plot is not exactly clearly explained (it has something to do with stealing Mexican gold to buy California from the Mexicans) but fortunately (a) the film doesn’t really spend too much time worrying about it and (b) since the plot involves enslavement and ruthless murder, it hardly matters anyway as their villainous credentials are very well established.

As the young Zorro, Banderas (at the height of his roguish charm) is very fine, giving it just the right balance of cocksure confidence and playful exuberance. He also weights the character with a genuine love for his murdered brother, which expands as the film progresses into a sincere empathy for the poor and downtrodden. He also has great chemistry with Zeta-Jones (basically establishing her career here) – they meet in no less than three guises, and with each the romantic spark is exceptional. The famous foreplay sword-fight scene (culminating with Murrieta using precise strokes to remove Elena’s top) works because their sword fight is not only playful, but their romantic interest and mutual respect is clear.

Anthony Hopkins also relishes the chance to take an action role (it’s quite something to think he was nearly 60 at the time of filming). Sure, not all the stunts are him of course – and he had to have a generous application of fake tan to give him a Spanish appearance – but the performance works because Hopkins gives it a perfect playful charm, while never losing the sight of the pain under de la Vega’s surface. He gives a lot of weight to what could otherwise have been a straight “mentor role”.

Campbell directs all this with a brisk, old-school simplicity – the film has a true 1930s swashbuckling feel to it. It’s not exactly the last word in exciting film making, but it doesn’t have to be. The important thing Campbell understands here is keeping the pace up, and presenting us with something fun or exciting (or both) every scene. So whether it is a decent gag, a piece of cool looking sleight of hand (de la Vega using a whip to extinguish candles from a distance) or the clash of swords, something always keeps you entertained.

When you match that with some performances you’ve got a great piece of Sunday afternoon entertainment. It’s possibly a bit too long, and Wilson’s Rafael (while in some ways an interesting, conflicted character) is never really allowed the space to become an effective counterpoint to the heroes. But despite that, it offers more than enough entertainment, excitement and fun. It’s got a decent, fun script with plenty of good lines, and by keeping the focus on a small core cast it really allows us to bond with those characters. It lacks a certain undefinable quality that makes it a beloved film, but it has enough to make it a welcome guest whenever it comes round.

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