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High Mask: Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones tear through old California in the newest Zorro adventure.

Zorro for Conduct

Armed with a mask and a sombrero, Antonio Banderas carves a new 'Legend of Zorro'

By Richard von Busack

ZORRO, please come back and carve a letter "Z" on Arnold Schwarzenegger's forehead. The Mask of Zorro (1998) was everything a Zorro movie should be, plus a lot of other bric-a-brac: exec producer Steven Spielberg's customary mania for father-son bonding and a few acts from The Count of Monte Cristo. The sequel, The Legend of Zorro, has the star back in the mask and sombrero. That's the good news. While the role flatters anyone—even George Hamilton—Banderas' aptitude for the comedy of thwarted dignity goes back to his days with Pedro Almodóvar. That he's slightly tired around the eyes and the mouth only adds to the humor.

In 1850, California is ready to enter the United States, but San Mateo's Don Alejandro de la Vega (Banderas) is too distracted by his double life to get into the flag waving. His spouse, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is irritated at his swashbuckling, and separates from him. And she seems ready—suspiciously ready—to remarry. The plump-chinned, supercilious actor Rufus Sewell has been rotting admirably since his breakthrough work in Cold Comfort Farm. Sewell plays the pedigreed Count Armand, a wealthy vineyard owner hatching a dangerous plot: a plot more heinous than even the $5 wine-tasting fee that vineyards have laid as a yoke on the necks of the trembling peons of Northern California. Without spoiling the plot, it can be admitted that the count's insignia—a serpent devouring the Earth—isn't meant to illustrate the boldness of his zinfandel.

If the movie is frequently cheesy, Banderas carries on like a man who doesn't know the meaning of the word cheese. He's a treat carrying out a tribute to Lee Marvin's famous drunk scene in Cat Ballou. But his Zorro gets outnumbered by Zeta-Jones (blatant as always), a son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso, from Innocent Voices), and even a wonder horse that's been trained to smoke a pipe. Someone forgot that it is Zorro's solitude that makes him fascinating.

Director Martin Campbell's first Zorro film acknowledged the Bonds in the first image: our hero entered, spurs jingling, and drew a sword on the audience, in honor of the "gun barrel" opener of the James Bond movies. Sadly, The Legend of Zorro is like one of the baroque later Bonds with Roger Moore: blousy, lummoxy and in indifferent color. What was like flamenco the first time around is now like a slam dance. It gives face to Hispanics, insisting that children ought to be addressed in Spanish ("the language of our fathers," says our hero), but the film is less centered in the world of Latin fire and smoke. The opening sequence seems like an off-putting reference to the Iraqi elections. When our hero prays to the Virgin, she's a porcelain statue, instead of the honest Guadalupean Madonna that should be standing there. The film is full of nervous choices.

Still, the low-comedy works sometimes, as when Joaquin attacks his tyrannical teacher in front of his cheering class (Zorro for Conduct). Even the crude special effects can't hurt the appeal of Tornado the horse leaping to the top of a runaway train or Banderas's bemusement at Zeta-Jones' cupid's-bow smirk. One isn't seduced properly, but one succumbs. Seeing the black rider racing across the desert is one of cinema's oldest, simplest and most underrated pleasures.

The Legend of Zorro (PG), directed by Martin Campbell, written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, photographed by Phil Meheux and starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, opens Friday valleywide.

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Web extra to the October 26-November 1, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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