A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE LEGEND OF ZORRO jjj

2005, PG, 129 mins.

Zorro/Alejandro: Antonio Banderas / Elena: Catherine Zeta-Jones / Joaquin: Adrian Alonso / Armand: Rufus Sewell / Jacob McGivens: Nick Chinlund

Directed by Martin Campbell /  Written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci

The Legend of Zorro Original Poster

When pulp writer Johnston McCulley wrote the first Zorro story - “The Curse of Capistrano” - way, way back in the 1919 magazine All-Story Weekly, I sincerely doubt that he had any clue what a heroic archetype and popular fictional figure he would become.  The character’s influence on popular culture cannot be undermined.  Zorro, arguably at least, was the first modern super hero that preceded famous creations like Superman by nearly two decades.  He was the earliest precursor to the classic and iconic comic hero – the one that had a secret identity by day and a masked alter ego by night.  In these ways, he was definitely a trendsetter

Much like the Bob Kane created Batman (who Kane himself admits he borrowed heavily on the Zorro mythos), Zorro was an independently wealthy man whose secret identity accomplishes good for his impoverished people when they had no heroes to fight for them.  His visage remains one the more unmistakable and memorable – wide brimmed sombrero, mask that covers all of his face but his lower jaw (again, like Batman) and a long flowing black cape which, no doubt, was another tell-tale characteristic that would later foreshadow other future fictionalized heroes in print.

The character became so adored by readers that he began the natural transitional that most fashionable characters in print saw – that to the silver screen.  Douglas Fairbanks made Zorro a legend on the big screen in the character’s first film outing in 1920’s THE MARK OF ZORRO, which became such a sensation that it prompted McCulley to re-release his serial in novel form under a new title THE MARK OF ZORRO.  Needless to say, the 1920 film spawned a sequel, not to mention a foray into more films and TV shows that would last another 80 years.  By my research Zorro has been the center piece of 18 films, ranging from the Fairbanks entries to the Guy Williams films of the 50’s to, yes, the George Hamilton farce ZORRO: THE GAY BLADE in 1981.  No matter what incarnation he has seen, whether it be straight or not (no pun intended), Zorro can make a claim of longevity that would rival Superman, Batman, and even James Bond. 

All of that being said, it is kind of revealing that Martin Campbell’s 1998 revisionist Zorro film – THE MASK OF ZORRO – was seen as the definitive Zorro movie.  I guess that is not saying much when you consider that the last Zorro film before that one was the Hamilton parody and satire nearly 20 years earlier.  Nevertheless, Campbell's film concerned an elder Zorro (played charismatically by Anthony Hopkins, with a certain level of Fairbanks twinkling in his eyes) who began to grow too old for his swashbuckler days.  He crosses swords with a street urchin, who as a child worshipped Zorro but as an adult (played by Antonio Banderas) turned to petty crime as a bandit.  Nonetheless, the old Zorro takes Banderas under his wing and trains him as his inevitable replacement.  That film saw Banderas fill the mantle of Zorro as completely as I have seen since probably the days of Fairbanks, which is no small task considering the shoes he was to fit in.  It is also worth mentioning that he was paired with the then relatively unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was equally spirited, plucky, and energetic. 

THE MARK OF ZORRO was a superior swashbuckler and escapist entertainment, a film of simple virtues, noble and chivalrous heroes, dastardly villains, and a sense of old fashioned whimsey.  It seemed to fill the cinematic void for those old 1930 movie serial thrills that the last Indiana Jones picture left in us and was capped off by the winning performances of Banderas, Hopkins, and Jones.  Now, nearly seven years after the fact, the sequel – THE LEGEND OF ZORRO - has finally been released with the same cast (sans Hopkins) and director (Campbell) on board to helm the further exploits of the most famous Spanish outlaw.  Although the new film hardly is the equal to its 1998 prequel, THE LEGEND OF ZORRO is still in a good thrill ride and works mainly as a decent, large-scale family action pictures that has no other desires but to entertain and elicit modest feelings of pleasure from its audience.  On these levels, THE LEGEND OF ZORRO may be a louder, more crass, and less charming film that its predecessor, but it still remains a light-hearted adventure flick that is watchable, enjoyable, and does not in any real way tarnish the legend of McCulley’s legendary figure.

This new film finds its story taking place years after the events of the first film.  Alejandro de La Vega (Banderas) continues to defend the people of California while still trying to forge a fulfilling marriage with his wife Elena (the always gorgeous Jones).  As the early moments of the film reveal, being a masked 19th Century super hero as well as husband and father is no effortless task.  Elena begs Alejandro to forget his outlaw ways and stay home to look out for the best interests of her son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso).  Of course, we a dealt up a healthy dosage of those semi-obligatory moments of marital strife where the pleading and nagging Elena tries to convince her husband to abandon the mask of Zorro forever and instead lead a life of a simple husband and father.  Alejandro sees her point, but still feels that his dark-clad alter ego may still be much needed.

Maybe Zorro has a point.  After all, as the film opens, Kah-e-fornia is desperately trying to become the 31st state of the Union and some dirty and vile evil forces are trying to ensure that this does not happen quite so  smoothly.  There is the racist and malevolent McGivins (the greasy and snarling Nick Chinlund) who goes as far as murder and ballot theft (!).  In an early action scene of creativity, energy, and well-paced mayhem, Zorro swoops in a rescues the ballots from McGivens and takes measures to ensure that he will not jeopardize the all-important election.  Well, the election does go right on course and when the votes all safely delivered Zorro returns home to be his wife and son.

It appears that Alejandro and Elena have made a previous agreement where Alejandro would forever hang up his cape, cowl, sword, and whip.  Yet, when he begins to show signs that he may welch from his promise to Elena, a heated argument ensues which results in divorce proceedings by Elena and her being wooed by a slimy French count named Armand (resident period piece bad guy Rufus Sewell, channeling the wickedness he demonstrated in a similar character he played in A KNIGHT’S TALE).  When it seems that Elena may in fact marry this wine maker, Alejandro turns to the bottle and becomes reckless drunk.  However, when it is revealed that Armand is truly not a moral figure, Alejandro turns to the mask one last time to defeat the bad guy, get the girl, and save the state of California.

Saccharine could be a term that best describes this new Zorro film.  I think I mean that as both a compliment and, paradoxically, a criticism.  The first Banderas Zorro film was rated PG-13 and had a genuine sense of threat, danger, and menace to its story, action, and characters.  THE LEGEND OF ZORRO is a much more family friendly outing in the sense that it is rated PG and seems like an action thriller that is trying to bridge the gap between the young and old viewer.  Yet, unlike a somewhat similar turn that occurred in the first BATMAN film series with the sacrilegiously awful BATMAN AND ROBIN, this Zorro film is still endearing enough to appease both adults and children.  In our day and age of nihilistic and violent fare, this is somewhat welcoming and refreshing.  Sure, this Zorro film lacks much of the soul and personality of THE MARK OF ZORRO, but it still has an unpretentious level of rousing spectacle and an unapologetic appetite for excitement.  Remember folks - this is ZORRO, not the angst-ridden anti-hero noir that tries to bathe in a murky and dark level of psychological verisimilitude like, say, BATMAN BEGINS.

THE LEGEND OF ZORRO has many scenes of stirring action set pieces, like the before mentioned opening moment of Zorro saving the California election as well as a polished and exciting concluding montage where he must battle the villain on a speeding train.  Although there seems to be a lot more CGI trickery and manipulation used in this Zorro, these scenes still hold a level of boisterous vitality and spunk to them.  Banderas, as he demonstrated in the first film, seems absolutely born to play the role, and manages to have a nice balancing act here between sensitivity, bravado, machismo, and vulnerability.  Equally winning is Jones, who remains as luminous of a screen presence as ever.  Her scenes with Banderas sort of harkens back to the old Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies where our affection for them does not reside so much in their mannered acting but rather in their energy and chemistry, which is here in abundance.  Also along for the ride is the son, played rather amusingly by Adrian Alonso, who seems like a Zorro wanna-be with a surprising amount of appeal and resourcefulness for a young pre-adolescent boy. 

THE LEGEND OF ZORRO is far from a perfect entertainment.  The film takes a dreadfully long time in the exposition side of its story and the plot machine takes a bit of time before its cylinders truly start to click.  The film’s running time is also absorbingly long and is a bit too much of an unwanted endurance test for my tastes (for a more light-weight and cheeky Zorro film, I am afraid that 135 minutes is a tad too long for its own good).  The overall arc of the film involving a secret mission by one of the characters seems painfully contrived in its manipulation of the plot, not to mention in the idiocy of another character that takes too much time to uncover it.  Rufus Sewel plays an effectively corrupt antagonist who engages in a terrible ploy whose motivation I still am trying to completely figure out.  Does he want to dominate California or destroy it or both? 

Then again, does it matter...this is ZORRO.

THE LEGEND OF ZORRO is not in the great tradition of the inspiring swashbuckler actioneers like THE MASK OF ZORRO, but it’s in the good tradition of these types of pictures.  It is, no doubt, an inferior sequel to the leaner and meaner 1998 film, which remains the definitive Zorro adaptation.  Yet, this new Zorro still aims reasonably to please.  The fights scenes and action set pieces are ridiculous and frantic, yet competently exhilarating, and Banderas and Jones provide the necessary star appeal that is a clear prerequisite for an escapist film like this – they are never dull or lifeless.  Perhaps after a seven-year wait most Zorro loyalists may leave THE LEGEND OF ZORRO a bit unfulfilled and disappointed.  For the lay film going audience member that yearns for a good popcorn entertainment that is colorful, unobtrusively cornball, flamboyantly slapstick, and irrepressibly fun, then this Zorro hits its mark squarely. 

Ahhhh yes.

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