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Last modified Wednesday, October 26, 2005 1:10 PM PDT

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'Legend of Zorro' retains original's likability, if not all of its charm

    B- "The Legend of Zorro"
    Starring: Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Adrian Alonso
    Director: Martin Campbell
    Studio: Sony's Columbia Pictures
    Rated: PG (for sequences of violence/peril and action, language and a couple of suggestive moments)

      California's future is at stake, and it'll take a big-screen action hero to set things right.

      His name doesn't begin with A, as in Arnold; it begins at the end of the alphabet.

      "The Legend of Zorro" reunites Antonio Banderas as the masked swordsman who fights for the oppressed, Catherine Zeta-Jones as his fiery lady love, and director Martin Campbell.

      The result is pretty much on par with the threesome's 1998 hit "The Mask of Zorro," though the new movie does forfeit some of the original's charm with the absence of Anthony Hopkins as the aging Zorro, who passed the mantle on to Banderas in that movie.

      Like "Mask of Zorro," the sequel offers impressive blade work, clever stunt gymnastics, energetic performances and endearing chemistry between Banderas and Zeta-Jones.

      The latter is somewhat less smoldering and more wholesome this time, given the new movie has a family-friendlier PG rating, instead of the original's PG-13 designation, and the fact that Zorro and his woman now are an old married couple with a 10-year-old son.

      Also like the original, "The Legend of Zorro" could have stood some judicious pruning, the movie running far too long for what is essentially a modern take on an old Saturday matinee adventure.

      The story picks up a decade after "Mask of Zorro," with Banderas' Alejandro and Zeta-Jones' Elena living a comfy life as local gentry with their mischievous boy, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso).

      Alejandro continues to moonlight as the hero of the people, Zorro. But with California about to become a state and put its lawless territorial days behind it, Alejandro has promised Elena he will hang up his mask and become a full-time family guy.

      Mayhem wrought by the low-down land-grabber McGivens (Nick Chinlund) and a fiendish plot by a shadowy fraternal order force Alejandro to prolong his duties as Zorro, prompting Elena to boot him out and sue for divorce.

      Elena ends up pursued by an old school chum, the French blowhard Armand (Rufus Sewell), leaving Alejandro making the odd drunken attempt to win her back while trying to prevent the secret society's plan to deploy a mid-1800s equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction.

      Despite its length, "Legend of Zorro" is a pleasantly cartoonish diversion. The fights are big, the humor is hearty, the climax is explosive.

      The script by Roberto Orci and Alexa Kurtzman offers some nice moments for Banderas and Zeta-Jones to resume their verbal and physical sparring without seeming like leftovers from the first movie.

      Throwing Zorro's son into the mayhem, the filmmakers stumble into overly precious action at times, the movie lapsing into a 19th-century echo of Banderas' "Spy Kids" flicks.

      The intensity of some of the action also strains the PG rating. Amid the wisecracking and swashbuckling, there are darker doings that might disturb young children.

      It took seven years for the filmmakers to capitalize on the success of the first movie, but "Legend of Zorro" generally was worth the wait. Though she's a more matronly Elena this time, Zeta-Jones remains a radiant presence, while with his dry wit and sense of boyish mischief, Banderas was simply born to play Zorro.

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