MASK OF ZORRO, THE

PG-13
Reviews

A venerable movie swashbuckler gets a Steven Spielberg makeover in The Mask of Zorro, the big-budget revival of the masked Mexican hero first introduced by Douglas Fairbanks in 1920. The film is ably directed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye), but the breathless, Indiana Jones-style action, sly approach to romance, and first-rate production values clearly mark this as an Amblin enterprise. Old-fashioned in its earnest, non-campy treatment of its heroes' quest for justice and retribution, this is a movie for people who long to get wholeheartedly caught up in a rousing movie adventure (as opposed to the slick but empty substitutes that often pass for action movies today).

The film actually features two Zorros, allowing it to capitalize on the talents of two charismatic stars: heartthrob Antonio Banderas, in what could become his signature role, and Anthony Hopkins, amazingly fit and altogether delightful as the aging Don Diego de la Vega. The Mask of Zorro begins with a prologue set in 1821 in Alta California, as Hopkins' Zorro saves some peasants about to be arbitrarily executed by the heartless Spanish governor, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson). Now that Spain has lost its ongoing battle with Mexican freedom fighter Santa Ana, Montero is being sent home, but before he leaves, he forces a final showdown with Zorro/Don Diego, the aristocratic champion of the oppressed who has been making his life miserable. In the ensuing fight, Don Diego's beloved wife Esperanza is accidentally killed. Montero has Don Diego placed in a dungeon and kidnaps his baby daughter, Elena.

Twenty years later, Montego returns with a scheme to buy California from now Mexican president Santa Ana, using gold he has secretly unearthed on Mexican land. Montero's presence spurs Don Diego to break out of prison, intent on killing his sworn enemy. The only thing that stops him is the sight of his beautiful grown daughter (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who believes Montero is her father. Not as agile as he used to be, Don Diego takes on a young bandit named Alejandro (Banderas) as his protg, recognizing him as one of twin boys who came to his aid all those years ago. For his part, Alejandro has some unfinished business with Montero's ally Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), the arrogant American army captain who killed his brother.

One of the movie's highpoints is Don Diego's training regimen for the new Zorro, with Banderas comically cocky and over-eager, and Hopkins effortlessly demonstrating who the real master is. Though from very different backgrounds, the two actors have equal presence and energy onscreen, and it's a pleasure to watch their unlikely rapport. Once Alejandro's swordfighting prowess is honed, Don Diego turns into Henry Higgins, developing his student's social skills, with the aim of having him infiltrate Montero's society circle in the guise of a young heir. Needless to say, Alejandro immediately becomes smitten with Don Diego's comely daughter.

For all its epic scale, John Eskow, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's screenplay is basically a very efficient five-hander: two sets of mortal enemies, and a beautiful woman caught in the middle. More than most action spectaculars, the conflicts in The Mask of Zorro are deeply personal, involving real anguish, and those who go along for the ride will have an emotional stake in the outcome. With all that, the film doesn't disappoint on the pure action level: The swordfights are fierce and excitingly choreographed, and the chases incorporate breathtaking stuntwork and horsemanship. Shot in wide-screen, Zorro also features lavish production design by Cecilia Montiel and consistently handsome cinematography by Phil Meheux (GoldenEye).

Banderas, a magnetic presence in the early films of Pedro Almodovar, has been incrementally establishing himself as an American crossover success in films like Philadelphia, Interview With the Vampire, Desperado and, most especially, as a surprisingly adept musical performer in Evita. Zorro should be his breakout, since he's perfectly cast as a sexy, impulsive, dashing, sometimes comic, high-energy hero. Hopkins, not one's first notion of a swashbuckler, proves he can do just about anything, and lends the film panache, dramatic heft, intelligence and class. English actress Zeta-Jones (The Phantom) makes a striking impression as Elena, and is a formidable, robust match for her two co-stars. As Montero, Wilson (Death and the Maiden) plumbs the depths of villainy while always maintaining his power-mad character's human dimension. Relative newcomer Letscher (Gettysburg) is also eminently hissable as the opportunistic Captain Love. Veteran supporting player L.Q. Jones provides some colorful fun in his brief role as Alejandro's former partner in crime, Three-Fingered Jack.

Old-style popcorn entertainment in the best sense, The Mask of Zorro could be what audiences are searching for this summer.

--Kevin Lally