Zorro-full tale

'Legend' dims pair of Tinseltown's shiniest stars
Friday, October 28, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

The Legend of Zorro

(PG) Columbia Pictures (125 min.)

Directed by Martin Campbell. Stars Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta- Jones, Rufus Sewell. Opens Friday at theaters throughout New Jersey.

Stars: 1 1/2

Hollywood is not having a great year.

A record-setting slump dominated the spring, the summer was the slowest since 1997 and autumn isn't looking any brighter. As production budgets increase, it seems so does audience apathy.

There is one obvious way for studios to save money and curb losses: make shorter movies. A good percentage of this year's popcorn flicks have had running times north of two hours. When $1 million or more is being spent per screen minute, it certainly seems like a good idea to try and trim a few scenes. The action-adventure sequel "The Legend of Zorro" is a case study in indulgent, long- winded filmmaking. The movie runs an anesthetizing two hours and five minutes, padded with glamour shots of its stars, CG showpieces for its effects technicians and asinine jokes about Zorro's horse smoking and drinking.

Director Martin Campbell, who helmed 1998's "The Mask of Zorro," replaces populist whimsy with lopsided politics. The picture makes bad guys of bigots yet, at the same time, presents its key villain as a sniveling French cliché. The wine-sipping snob plots to steal Zorro's wife and also lords over a vaguely Satanic group of European aristocrats.

The dull-bladed plotting saps the energy level. Fight scenes are too few and far between to ward off boredom.

The sequel catches up with Zorro, alias Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Banderas), and his bodice-modeling beloved, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), after a decade of marriage. Alejandro is still leading a double life as masked folk hero, conquering oppressors with pointy weapons and cutting remarks. He's a great swordsman but a bad parent, too busy swashbuckling to serve as much of a mentor to his 10-year-old son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso).

It's 1850, and California is on the brink of statehood, but there is a certain contingent of racists who aren't exactly rolling out the welcome mat. During the opening action sequence, Zorro swoops in to battle a posse of gunslingers bent on sabotaging an election. The bandit leader is Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund), a Bible-quoting cowboy branded with a cross- shaped scar on his cheek. He's the zealous antithesis of Zorro's church ally, Fra Filipe (Julio Oscar Mechoso, with an anachronistic Lawng Island accent).

After a hard day's swordplay, our hero returns home to Elena, who nags him about never being around. Next thing you know, she's filed divorce papers, and Zorro's dwelling in a hotel, people's savior- turned-town drunk. He attends a party, presumably for the free booze, hosted by a French wine merchant, Armand (Rufus Sewell), who announces grand plans for California vineyards. Armand also presents his date for the evening, Elena.

Appearances are deceiving, however, and Elena has her own reasons for hanging out with the dubious Frenchman. So begins an epically vapid tale in which Zorro must sober up and get his family back together to fight tyrannical conspirators.

Both Banderas and Zeta-Jones have a few moments of self-aware fun, but mainly their performances are awkward and outsized. "The Mask of Zorro" made them stars. "The Legend of Zorro" makes them caricatures.

Rating note: The film contains action violence, sexual content, strong language and alcohol abuse.

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