Much of the appeal of The Mask of Zorro can be traced to its retro feel, which went beyond the period costumes, production design or mid-19th-century setting to the gravity-defying, near-impossible, and always crowd-pleasing stunts. There's rarely a better movie going experience than watching, and vicariously, viscerally experiencing the protagonist-hero (or heroine) confronting and defeating a small contingent of well-armed foes at close quarters, using any available object, including his hands, feet, and, of course, a sword, which also allows the hero to "show-off" his expertise to his opponents and viewers alike.
After a suitably action- and stunt-oriented opening, Zorro (Antonio Banderas), a masked avenger once again saving the day from a group of minor thugs led by McGivens (Nick Chinlund). Zorro saves an all-important ballot box that contains the local results of a statewide referendum (on whether California should join the Union). Done for the day, Zorro returns home to his sprawling hacienda. There, Zorro takes off his mask, cape, and puts away his sword and trademark whip. Zorro, now Don Alejandro de la Vega, a respectable landowner, is reunited with his wife, Elena de La Vega (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and his son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). Elena, tired of Zorro's nightly escapades and fearful for Alejandro's life, objects. Alejandro, driven by a (vaguely defined) passion for social activism through swashbuckling, but more importantly, the adrenaline rush that his alter ego continues to provide him, agrees, but only half-heartedly (and sometime in the future).
Alejandro is torn between conflicting duties, to his family and to the community. Elena, unhappy with his response, sues for divorce. Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), is equally unhappy with the turn of events. Joaquin, however, shows signs of his father's rebelliousness and hunger for adventure. Two men, of unknown origin, Harrigan (Michael Emerson) and Pike (Shuler Hensley) make an appearance. Their Machiavellian natures will be revealed as plot complications pile up on pile complications (as any good adventure story is wont to do).
Flash forward three months. Alejandro, bereft at losing his wife, consoles himself with large helpings of food and drink. Invited to a dinner party at the estate of a French count, Armand (Rufus Sewell). Much to his displeasure, he eyes Elena with Armand. Motivated to regain Elena's trust, respect, and love, Alejandro dons the Zorro costume for some late-night sleuthing around Armand's vineyard. Armand, of course, isn't what he seems, but then again, that holds true for at least one major character.
Thanks to his stealthy sleuthing (and several opportune encounters with other characters), Zorro uncovers a nefarious plan that involves an ancient, secret society (cough*The Da Vinci Code*cough), a private railroad, pre-Confederate, anti-Union Southerners, and a preemptive war that will result in chaos and a weakened, impotent Union. Once again, Zorro has to turn on the action heroics, saving California, the Union, and his family simultaneously (Elena and Joaquin hold their own, though, with whatever the villains throw at them, allowing each of them individual moments of heroism). All that and California's entry into the Union is about to be celebrated at a historic site on the same day that the villain finally puts his plan into motion (in both senses of that word).
Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman's screenplay borrows elements from the original serials that inspired 1998's Zorro revival, Indiana Jones, James Bond (in the hissable, megalomaniac villain and his silent, bald, mustached, blade-wielding henchman), and the campy, sci-fi/action/western, Wild, Wild, West (the mid-60s television series, not the overblown, bloated "reimagining" released in 1999). The Legend of Zorro may be, in the final analysis gossamer thin thematically, but it never fails to entertain, thanks to the elaborately choreographed stunt work (undermined slightly by dodgy CGI in the last reel), winning performances (mostly of the near-camp or tongue-in-cheek variety), and a storyline that creates a series of interlocking conflicts between and among the major characters and their loyalties (with one revelation already given away in the television commercials and trailer).
Certainly, The Legend of Zorro has its faults, including the aforementioned thematic thinness or borrowed feeling that many scenes generate. Orci and Kurtzman know their action formula well, perhaps too well, at times relying on overused plot devices (e.g., the character who miraculously survives a gunshot, the villain who inexplicably allows two characters to live, betraying his own ruthlessness, or leaving the hero to a secondary henchman to dispatch while he puts his plans for world domination or chaos in play), but sometimes pleasure can be found in the superficial tweaks writers and directors give to formulaic plotlines. Formulas offer some flexibility, if not where and how a story develops or resolves itself, then in the execution or elaboration of that formula. On that level, The Legend of Zorro succeeds in meeting the producers unambitious expectations (cheesy freeze frame of Zorro and his horse in front of a golden sunset to the contrary).
© Mel Valentin, 27th October, 2005
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