Movie review: 'The Legend of Zorro'

Antonio Banderas brings irresistible energy and madcap panache to the "Zorro" sequel.

There's an infectious sense of fun in "The Legend of Zorro." A lot of the credit goes to the script's comedy and panache and the exhilarating direction by Martin Campbell, who dusted the B-movie cobwebs off the character in 1998's "The Mask of Zorro," but the lion's share of praise belongs to Antonio Banderas.

Actors nowadays rarely tear into their roles with such undisguised, hammy gusto. Banderas clearly adores playing the Robin Hood of Old California, part Latin lover and part heroic freedom fighter. Snapping his cape like a matador, dueling a dozen swordsmen with perfect élan, swinging on his bullwhip like Spider-Man, Banderas makes Zorro a beguiling showboat in the style of the late, great Douglas Fairbanks. It's the sort of performance whose virile narcissism leaves you grinning ear to ear.

The new film is set a decade after its predecessor. Don Alejandro de la Vega (Banderas) and his headstrong wife, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), have a magnificent hacienda, a troublemaking imp of a son and a crackling Rhett and Scarlett chemistry. California is about to join the United States, and the days when the territory's peasants required Zorro's protection appear to be waning. Elena wants Alejandro to put away his black mask and spend more time with her and little Joaquin. He is not eager to hang up his mask. They are mad about each other but obstinate as mules, and in a move all but unthinkable among 19th-century Catholic Hispanics, Elena files for divorce.

Shocked, Alejandro goes to pot a bit, drinking too much, casting jealous eyes on the men around Elena and staring daggers at her most ardent admirer, sneering French count Armand (Rufus Sewell). Banderas does a wonderful drunken stagger, which he demonstrates at Armand's fancy dress ball, waltzing with just a touch of a stumble as he cuts in on the aristocrat and tries to reclaim Elena.

When it goes badly for him, Alejandro and his horse get equally drunk and slump drunkenly against a wall in tandem, a wry allusion to "Cat Ballou." But his attention is urgently needed elsewhere. A cabal of powerful interests is bent on crippling the young American republic, a threat that only Zorro can halt.

The family-friendly film follows the good-natured formula of Banderas' "Spy Kids" movies as Alejandro, Elena and 10-year-old Joaquin (Adrian Alonso) do their part in battling the menace. Campbell takes familiar Western motifs (train robberies, frontier romance and brawls) and twists them for light humor and Saturday-matinee thrills. The film steadfastly refuses to make sense -- when did all the villains in the Old West trade in their revolvers for swords? -- but its momentum is hard to resist.

Joaquin, who adores the masked Zorro's bravado and thinks his stodgy father acts too meek, has some delightful fight sequences, clobbering adult villains with instinctual agility. And Zeta-Jones, a great dancer who can seem straight-jacketed in serious drama, cuts loose in her athletic role, and brings a spicy sensuality to her scenes with Banderas.

The new "Zorro" is one of the rare films that aim to thrill us while lampooning the adventure genre, and hit both bull's-eyes simultaneously.

The Legend Of Zorro

*** out of four stars

The setup: The masked champion of the people (Antonio Banderas), divorced by his high-spirited wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), discovers a plot to splinter the United States.

What works: Banderas' relish for the role is impossible to resist.

What doesn't: Executive producer Steven Spielberg's family-friendly fingerprints are all over this production. Not everyone will find that a good thing.

Great line: Any spoken by 10-year-old Mexican actor Adrian Alonso as Zorro's son. Alonso learned his lines phonetically, yet delivers them so well you'd never suspect it.

Rating: PG for sequences of violence/peril and action, language and a couple of suggestive scenes.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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