"The Legend of Zorro" is like a college reunion where everyone has been forced into the same clothes they wore in school. Nothing fits, everything's out of style, and the spectacle of people straining to act like their younger selves is mortifying in the extreme. This is why they serve alcohol at college reunions. Sadly, you'll have to suffer through the movie sober.
"The Mask of Zorro," remember, was a happy surprise - a slickly enjoyable 1998 update on the old Tyrone Power swashbucklers that gave Antonio Banderas' career a kick in the pants while unveiling a brand new star in Catherine Zeta-Jones. He was the foppish Don Alejandro Murrieta - trained by the old Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) to be the new - she was the saucy Elena Montero, and with director Martin Campbell's help they saved Spanish California from corruption and sneering villainy. There was derring-do to be done, and Banderas and Zeta-Jones derring-did.
Arriving seven years later, "Legend" is more like derring-don't. The stars and director are back but the thrill is gone, replaced by a mutton headed script and slapstick comedy that starts in hectic mode and quickly strips its gears. The movie plays to the kiddie audience, and, fittingly, the only amusing scenes belong to Adrian Alonso as Joaquin, the rascally 10-year-old son of Don Alejandro and Elena. The boy has the acrobatic genes, but since he doesn't know his dreary pop is also Zorro - even when the two have a mask-to-face conversation - maybe he's not as smart as he looks. Alonso does have a better time than anyone else, though, and that includes the audience.
What was a simple revenge tale in the first film has become a tortuous spy comedy weighed down with weirdly heavy-handed America First-isms. California has just voted itself into the United States, but an evil alliance threatens to wreck democracy at home while bringing ruin to the distant Union. A rotten-toothed gunman (Nick Chinlund) is on the scene, but the real bad guy is easy to spot - he's the French dandy Armand (Rufus Sewell), who appears to have won the heart of Elena after the leads quarrel and divorce most unconvincingly. Who's the target audience for this movie? The handful of Red Staters still munching Freedom Fries?
"The Legend of Zorro" alternates between frantic, overcooked action comedy and a preschool rehash of Hitchcock's "Notorious," and it only rarely lets Zorro buckle his swash in the confident style of the first film. (There's a swordfight on a bridge that's a pip, but that's about it.) Banderas and Zeta-Jones go through the motions, but they know they're in the sort of secondhand swill that should have headed straight to DVD.
Part of the fun of the "The Mask of Zorro" was discovering Zeta-Jones, one of the few modern stars to possess the charismatic oomph of the old studio gods. You can take her performance here as a courtesy nod to the film that started her career, but the fact remains that she's changed and so have our perceptions of her. A married Hollywood supermom with a fat T-Mobile contract looks oddly out of place in old California.
As for the gaunt Banderas, whose career options have dwindled to providing the voice of Puss in Boots in "Shrek 2" and the upcoming "Shrek 3," there's nowhere to go but up. "Legend" is the kind of reunion where everyone looks as if they'd rather be elsewhere, and after two-plus hours, you will too.
Ty Burr can be reached at tburrglobe.com.