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Zorro brings the pain

The Legend of Zorro

1 star out of five

Dir: Martin Campbell

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rufus Sewell, Nick Chinlund, Adrian Alonso

In the first 10 minutes of The Legend of Zorro, our hero (Antonio Banderas) finds himself saving the day by battling a half-dozen generic bad guys. He chases them on horse, on foot, on rooftop and eventually across a half-constructed bridge where everybody has suddenly misplaced their guns and resorted to good, old-fashioned, swashbuckling swordplay.

Baddies fall in the river below one-by-one. One loses his balance and falls on the wooden beam between his legs. The action stops, the music stops, and the camera zooms in on his face, twisted in agony--laughs supposedly ensue. Welcome to Hollywood's idea of family entertainment.

The Mask of Zorro from 1998 was not a great film, but it was a fun summer popcorn movie, a joyous romp of an action flick with a suave Antonio Banderas, a dignified Anthony Hopkins, and an alluring new actress named Catherine Zeta-Jones. The story was not too innovative and the villain was the stuff of typical action fare, but it was a fun film if one wanted it to be.

Eight years later comes The Legend of Zorro, an audience-insulting, poorly edited and uninspired excuse of a sequel.

Missing this time around are action scenes that can be followed, a believable plot--or at least an excusable cause for suspension of disbelief--and characters worth caring about. It also lacks Anthony Hopkins.

The year is 1850, and California will soon become part of the United States. "An historical event," according to the opening crawl, that will bring peace and prosperity to all. At the same time, apparently, the American South is becoming agitated and civil war appears imminent.

The vote for statehood is disrupted by the aforementioned baddies, who have blunt (but kid-friendly) racist proclivities (you see, California, annexed from Mexico, is full of Mexicans) and it is up to Zorro to save democracy.

Which he does, much to the dismay of wife Elena (Zeta-Jones), who has gone from a dashing and formidable vixen of eight years ago, to a whiny mother concerned about her husband's decision to help the downtrodden instead of reading to their son.

Zorro has a conundrum: save his marriage, or save the people of California. He chooses a third option: playing poker with three naked men in a bath. I'm not kidding.

The rest of the story is a befuddled mess of a plot so outlandish and full of anachronisms that even the silliest of Bond films would think it too silly. Which is interesting considering returning director Martin Campbell also directed the 007 adventure Goldeneye.

The racist enemies of freedom are controlled by Count Armand (Rufus Sewell), who in addition to trying to seduce Elena away from Zorro, is a member of a 1,000-year-old secret Illuminati-like society called the Knights of Aragon, who are bent on throwing the United States into chaos.

To do this they plan to supply the Confederacy with the new explosive nitroglycerine ("13 times more powerful than gunpowder!" Armand says in his Goldfinger-like Knights of Aragon secret lair), even though the Civil War is another 11 years away. This nitro will be transported across the continent by a railway that wasn't completed for another 19 years.

And they communicate using ticker tape, which didn't exist for another 26 years. Oh, and don't forget Abraham Lincoln making a cameo appearance at California's statehood ceremony, a decade before he became president.

It's like The Godfather, which takes place in the late 1940s, having Don Corleone conspire through e-mail to supply helicopters to the North Vietnamese using the Concorde, while John F. Kennedy eats spaghetti at a nearby restaurant.

All this would be forgivable if the action was good or if most of the humor was funny, which it isn't, or if the story made sense, which it doesn't. The Legend of Zorro suffers from some of the worst editing, both in action scenes and in overall story flow, in years. It feels more like a rough draft of a film than the finished article. Even with its grandiose plot, which tries to combine family stability, espionage and world domination, this film should not have been that hard to follow.

What saves it from getting zero stars are the one or two jokes that did not involve a drunk horse or a pratfall and were genuinely funny, and the climactic action sequence on a speeding train, which is none too original, but still more thrilling than anything else in the movie.

Making an action film family-friendly does not just involve toning down the gore, sexual innuendo or foul language, and then tossing in a cute kid to steal a scene or two. It also involves not insulting the audience's intelligence. Sadly, Zorro's asinine anachronisms and general incoherence mean the on-screen villains won't be the only ones left with agonized looks on their faces.

The movie opens Jan. 21.

(Jan. 19, 2006)
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