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Review: Zorro, swashbuckling at a breakneck pace

The New York Times

The Legend of Zorro
Directed by Martin Campbell (U.S.)
Reviewed by Stephen Holden
The trouble with sequels is that most feel obliged to outperform their forerunners in the most obvious ways. Bigger, faster and more spectacular is usually the rule. Strenuously applied to "The Legend of Zorro," the sequel to the 1998 blockbuster "The Mask of Zorro," that rule translates into busier, sloppier, less coherent and more frantic; subtlety is out the window.
The fitfully entertaining mess of a movie was directed by Martin Campbell from a screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Especially in its jam-packed final 45 minutes, it leaps off the precipice like the rider who jumps (Zorro himself) from a ledge onto a speeding train that disperses a crowd as it races toward a tunnel. Beyond the breakneck pace of the editing, which generates its own momentum, little suspense is sustained; speed rules, but the pace is hectic.
"The Legend of Zorro" brings back Antonio Banderas, looking considerably older and in some shots haggard and flabby, as Don Alejandro de la Vega and his alter ego, Zorro. The voluptuous Catherine Zeta-Jones returns as his buxom wife, Elena, who smolders even in repose.
In this sequel-ready episode, the fun couple come apart at the beginning of the story, then reconnect just in time to save the nascent United States of America from falling into the hands of Confederate villains armed with a new secret weapon, nitroglycerin disguised as soap; California's statehood also hangs in the balance.
This fantasy of American history, of course, is utterly bogus in the same way that the history trotted out in a movie like "National Treasure" is fiction. But hey! This is just a rootin'-tootin' daydream of the Old West.
"The Legend of Zorro" could be dubbed the family edition of the myth, since the fun couple has spawned a son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), who at the age of 10, is already a fearless action hero. The unfortunate actor playing Joaquin has mouthfuls of cutesy, pseudo-tough-guy dialogue that come out sounding strained and affected. Look out, however, for Alonso, or for some other soon-to-be adolescent, to take over the franchise, if it is to be picked up for further episodes, which is probably not a good idea.
Like "National Treasure," "The Legend of Zorro" throws in a large pinch of the occult. It imagines that in 1850, when California was seeking to become the 31st state of the Union, a mysterious secret Spanish fraternity, the knights of Aragon, was scheming to rule the world through its agent, the evil Count Armand (Rufus Sewell), a school friend of Elena's. To Don Alejandro's chagrin, Elena seems willing to become Armand's new trophy wife.
Early in the story, the count celebrates the opening of a fancy winery that doubles as a front for his assembly line of explosives. Not even in the ritziest corners of Napa wine country have you seen a crowd as delirious or pyrotechnics as excessive as the fireworks encrusting Armand's mansion like double-layered frosting on a wedding cake.
Unlike most his-and-hers action teams, Banderas and Zeta-Jones enjoy combustible chemistry; in a couple of back-bending clinches they munch hungrily on either's mouths, and Zeta-Jones seems genuinely dazed with desire when she comes up for air. Their chemistry notwithstanding, neither star is required to act beyond putting on a few stock grimaces. All Banderas has to do is to direct thunderous scowls in the direction of this or that villain. Zeta-Jones's principal task (particularly when wearing pearls) is to embody fleshy sultriness and to express mild indignation when vexed.
This is a hiss-the-villain, cheer-the-hero kind of movie. The skuzziest of several bad guys is Armand's election-stealing, land-grabbing, cackling henchman, Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund), a grinning fiend with removable brown teeth and a hideous scar. His caricature of evil embodies the collapse of the franchise that originally embraced and sent up clichés with a knowing sense of humor and a hint of subtlety; no longer.
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