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Zorro's bore-o

The Legend of Zorro

**

Directed by Martin Campbell

Written by Roberto Orci, Terry Rossio Alex Kurtzman and Ted Elliott

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Starring Antonio Banderas

and Catherine Zeta-Jones Classification: PG

Sometimes you get your swashbuckling hopes up. The revival of the popular movie and television hero in The Mask of Zorro in 1998 was one of the unexpected highlights of the summer of Armageddon and Deep Impact. Here was a movie that paid tribute to the derring-do traditions of the thirties, instead of computer-generated explosions of the nineties, and turned into an unexpected blockbuster, earning more than $250-million worldwide. Could the sequel revive the tradition of action films with panache?

With his black mask and his zip-zip-zip signature, Zorro was a mainstay of popular entertainment from the twenties through the 1950s with about 40 films made around the world, and a well-known syndicated Disney TV series. The character, invented by a journalist named Johnston McCulley in 1919 and derived from Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel, was also the obvious model for Batman -- a wealthy dandy with a flair for costumes and graphic design who dons a mask to fight injustice.

Set in the early to mid-1800s in Spanish California, the 1998 movie starred Anthony Hopkins as the original Zorro, who hands down his mask to a hot-headed understudy played by Antonio Banderas. The contrast between Hopkins's cool and Banderas's fire, and the casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones in her first major role as tempestuous romantic lead, made for a charming throwback.

Now comes the long-deferred The Legend of Zorro, which, to put it bluntly, is a big bloated bore-o. Think of a combination of Wild Wild West and Spy Kids. Even Antonio Banderas's charismatic energy is dissipated in this cover-all-bets combination of comedy, action, romance and children's movie. Meanwhile, the committee of writers lost sight of Zorro's principle attributes, his sense of style and essential independence.

The new movie starts a decade after the old one ended, in 1850, as Californians are going to the ballot box to decide whether to become the 31st state of the Union. Before the ballot box can be taken to the governor's mansion for the count, a band of scoundrels grab it, intending to thwart the election. Enter Zorro, who, with the usual combination of whip, sword and some new, unexpected kung-fu moves -- foils the scheme. So far, so familiar.

Then the movie steps into sitcom land. Three months later, the unmasked Zorro, aka Don Alejandro de la Vega, is a henpecked husband at home with his wife, Elena (Zeta-Jones). She's complaining that he spends too much time fighting injustice and not enough with his son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). Joaquin, who is about 9 or 10, is a precocious brat who doesn't realize that his idol, Zorro, is really his father. The tyke shows he has a genetic propensity for acrobatic mayhem, just like his dear old dad. After the cartoon-family superheroes in The Incredibles, can you still get away with this sort of thing?

The domestic squabbling is a clumsy set-up for Alejandro and Elena's abrupt, contrived separation. Jump forward three months and Alejandro is deep in the sangria as Elena is already appearing on the arm of a foppish French wine grower, Count Armand (English actor Rufus Sewell in a lisping French accent). Of course Armand is a villain, part of a preposterous Da Vinci Code-like ancient conspiracy, which is planning to use a weapon of mass destruction -- that newfangled nitroglycerine -- to prevent California from attaining statehood. (Heavy-handed contemporary resonances aside, you have to like the scene where Armand holds up a piece of French-milled soap to explain what glycerine is.) To add to the dastardliness, Arnand's henchmen, led by a religious fanatic named McGivens (Nick Chinlund) with both wooden teeth and a cross branded on his cheek, is busy ravaging the countryside, scaring peasants into surrendering the deeds to their land.

There's a far too long, stunt-filled train sequence at the movie's conclusion that bookends the opening action sequence, but otherwise there seems to be little organization here. Director Martin Campbell, who had back-to-back hits with GoldenEye and The Mask of Zorro in the late nineties, and subsequently made the dismal Beyond Borders, is scheduled to shoot the new James Bond film, Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig next year. Cross your fingers.

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