Sony // 2005 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // January 23rd, 2006
"Five rings...to summon Zorro, in case there's trouble."
-- a young bell ringer
"If I know Zorro, he's already here."
-- the Padre
"1850: The people of California -- poor, desperate -- are on the verge of joining the union as its thirty-first state. Under proclamation of the governor, an historic vote holds the key to their fate...and the promise of freedom," the opening legend says.
When you see the bell ringer bracing for trouble, you know it's coming. The shots fired by villainous Jacob McGivens to scare the crowd, and the attempt to steal the ballots, are no surprise. Nor should it be a surprise that Zorro (Antonio Banderas, Desperado) is here. Swinging into action (literally, since his whip's as handy for speedy entrances as Spiderman's web or Tarzan's vines), Zorro confronts the villains on a bridge and makes short work of them -- but not too violently, since this is a PG movie.
Trouble is, his mask has fallen off in the fight, and someone was watching. We'll see them again later, when the two men confront his beloved Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Entrapment) in an alley and dangle a familiar black mask in front of her to gain her attention.
Of course, that's not the only trouble Zorro's having. As Alejandro, he returns home to the beautiful Elena to find her angry that he hasn't abandoned the mask as promised. She reminds him of his words at son Joaquin's birth: "My family is my life." Soon, Elena walks out on Alejandro and takes up with the suave Frenchman Count Armand (Rufus Sewell). After seeing them together, Alejandro storms out of Armand's chateau drunk, and sees an explosion unlike any he's ever seen before. He warns Elena, but she's not receptive. Soon, Alejandro (as Zorro) is on the trail of a plot that could undermine the United States.
The hero created by Johnston McCulley in "The Curse of Capistrano" serial (retitled The Mark of Zorro for book republication) in 1919 is back. Check a few Web sites (cited off to the side) and you'll find that the original character of Don Diego (played by Anthony Hopkins in The Mask of Zorro) was quite influential; he seems inspired by the Scarlet Pimpernel and, in turn, introduced character traits that shaped such modern comic book heroes as Batman, Superman, and Spiderman, not to mention radio's The Lone Ranger. The "political theater" aspects mentioned in William H. Stoddard's review of the original novel can be seen in Superbarrio, a modern Mexican masked man who speaks for the poor.
If you like the two leads, you'll like this movie. Their performances seem straight out of a Republic serial, exaggerated but fun. Antonio Banderas makes a great Zorro, relishing the fights, chases, and midnight sleuthing, and sets the right note as Alejandro, with a pliant face that embodies helplessness when we first see him alone without his Elena, and registers shock with an angry stare when he sees Elena with Armand for the first time. Even when he's seemingly defeated, there's something in Banderas's expression that lets the audience know he's really still in charge. Catherine Zeta-Jones echoes Banderas's broad style, shining best in comic scenes as she tries to distract Armand as Alejandro approaches them in the market, or feigns pipe smoking, coughing the whole time while claiming she enjoys the tobacco, to conceal a midnight visit from Zorro. As their son Joaquin, young actor Adrian Alonso echoes Zorro's zest for action in his fight and chase scenes. His dialogue isn't delivered perfectly, but the actor only spoke Spanish before shooting this movie. All three leads have a flair for action, and it's noted in commentary that Banderas performed many of his own stunts, including swordplay.
There are lots of funny throwaway lines, mostly of the anachronistic variety. When Joaquim sees him fighting for the first time after freeing him from a prison cell where he's been tormented by the men who know that he's the man behind the mask of Zorro. Joaquim asks where he learned to fight like that; Alejandro notes that "prison changes a man." The movie is full of little jokes that punctuate the action.
In the opposing corner, Rufus Sewell (A Knight's Tale) is perfectly duplicitous as Count Armand, whose winery hides an explosive secret that threatens California's statehood. The script shapes Armand as a sort of steampunk version of James Bond's Blofeld, complete with a scene in which he dispatches a skeptical associate-in-crime. As second-in-slime Jacob McGivens, Nick Chinlund (Con Air) is the snakelike villain you love to hate, taunting the crowd in the opening scene as he takes the ballot box, and even stealing a property deed in "You can't pay the rent/You must pay the rent" serial villainy style.
There's more setup than you might want early on in the film, but it pays off, exactly as expected, with a classic chase at the end. Zorro races to stop the bad guys' train, his sleek black horse Tornado standing out against a red-streaked sky. The fights and chases, a mix of live action and miniatures with a hint of CGI smoke (literally, with flames), are fast-moving and exciting.
Although one hacienda became a lot of locations, you get the feel of seeing a lot of rich old California scenery (filmed in Mexico) from the cinematography, whether it be a market scene or a ball. With a lot of the action taking place at night, these scenes are easy to read, with yellow or blue tones saturating the action in a way that looks natural. Zeta-Jones is shot in some scenes with a Garbo-style glow, to capture her natural beauty in a way that honors Zorro's classic roots. The sounds, whether they be the Latin-tinged score or the hoofbeats of Tornado, are bold in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround.
The highlight of the extras is "Playing With Trains," a featurette (one of four) explaining how the climactic train battle was shot. It shows how footage of a non-moving vintage steam train and a closely-detailed miniature train were combined into seamless shots. Each featurette ("Stunts," "Armand's Party," and "Visual Effects") focuses on one aspect of the movie. "Trains" should be enjoyable even if you're not normally into the "hows"; the others are fine if that's your area of interest.
Director Martin Campbell is a little too soft-spoken in the commentary; I had to listen to him at a higher volume than I had the movie itself. He and Cinematographer Phil Meheux are most interesting when they talk about toning down PG-13 action into PG form, and transforming one hacienda into an early California village. Most interesting among the deleted scenes is the original framing device of an adult Joaquim narrating his parents' history, then riding off as the new Zorro, which the studio dreaded as a sequel killer.
I got to play with my angle button on the DVD player with the multi-angle feature, which shows two scenes in various stages from rehearsal to finished film. Since these aspects are covered in other features, this one isn't vital unless you want to give your DVD buttons a complete run-through.
Since it's a PG movie (instead of the slightly more graphic PG-13), on-screen swordplay and fighting is toned down, but the bad guys meet untimely, off-screen ends. Mostly the villains (including Meheux, in a cameo) "blow up real good," as the two farmer film critics used to say on SCTV. Alejandro is seen visibly drunk in a couple of sequences as he reels from Elena's apparent desertion.
Part of the reason that Legend of Zorro didn't make as big a mark as The Mask of Zorro at the box office is that people knew exactly what to expect, and they were right. There's lots of popcorn fun, but if you were looking for cutting-edge entertainment, this isn't it, despite the cutting edge on Zorro's sword.
Original or not, if you liked Banderas and Zeta-Jones in The Mask of Zorro but didn't get around to seeing this one on the big screen, you'll like it when you catch up to it. It's as much fun as the original, and will be a favorite on DVD for years.
Not guilty. It's a good thing, because celluloid prison changes a movie.
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary by Director Martin Campbell and Cinematographer Phil Meheux
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Director's Commentary
* "Stunts" Featurette
* "Visual Effects" Featurette
* "Armand's Party" Featurette
* "Playing with Trains" Featurette
* Two Multi-angle Scene Deconstructions
* Johnston McCulley's Zorro Stories Site
* The Mark of Zorro Book Review by William H. Stoddard
* CNN Online Article on Superbarrio