Judge Christopher Kulik is quite adept as buckling his swash. Or is that Swatch? Hmm...
Don Diego: "Do you know how to use that thing?"
The summer of 1998 was a noisy one, to be sure. In the cinema, we saw giant meteors (Armageddon), huge lizards (Godzilla), flood thrillers (Hard Rain), and outer space adventures based on campy TV series (Lost In Space). For me, the highlight was the rekindling of pulp writer Johnston McCulley's Zorro. Following the cancellation of Walt Disney's hit 1950s television series starring Guy Williams, many attempts were made to bring the classic character to the big (Zorro, The Gay Blade) and small (Zorro And Son) screens. All of these versions, for whatever reasons, failed to make an impression.
That all changed when executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) unleashed the big-budget The Mask Of Zorro. Sporting the action, romance, and post-modern sensibilities of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, the film would garner both critical and audience acclaim, making it one of the few delights in a summer full of headaches. Now that Sony has given the film the Blu-ray treatment, is it worth upgrading?
Facts of the Case
Spanish California, 1821. An aging Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence Of The Lambs)—for years, a hero of the oppressed, fighting the tyranny of Spanish Governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson, Hot Fuzz)—announces his retirement. Soon after, Montero unmasks the vigilante, destroys his home, and takes his baby daughter Elena to raise her as his own.
Twenty years later, the long-imprisoned Diego manages to escape, seeking vengeance on Montero for destroying his life. When he sees Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones, No Reservations) accompanying Montero, however, he realizes he's going to need not only a plan but additional help. Enter thief Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas, Evita), who provided assistance to Zorro during his last ride. Diego trains Alejandro to be the new Zorro, right before Montero implements a new strategy to become rich by exploiting the peasants. Alejandro now must deal with a swine of an Army captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher, Towelhead), while falling in love with the fetching Elena.
The major difference between The Mask Of Zorro and the other aforementioned summer hits is the film's style and execution. While all suffered from an overdose of CGI, Zorro was faithful to the Saturday matinee serials of the 1940s, a genre in which the character had a prominent presence. Spielberg no doubt grew up watching chapters of Zorro's Fighting Legion and Zorro's Black Whip, as his love of the serial is evident in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Since he was no doubt busy working on Saving Private Ryan, he garners a fine substitute for the director's chair in Campbell, who had just helmed the riveting Bond adventure Goldeneye. Campbell was able to inject a generous amount of freshness and energy into a nearly 80-year-old property, utilizing deliciously old-fashioned tricks and stunts to move the story forward.
Even though The Mask Of Zorro runs well over two hours, there isn't a dull moment in this exhilarating, rip-roaring adventure, which has all the zesty ingredients we've come to expect from Zorro stories. The swashbuckling scenes are dynamic and sensational. The humor is rich and lively. The period detail is expansive and flavorful. The trademark "Z"s and horse salutes are perfectly placed. And the growing sexual tension between Elena and Alejandro is positively electric, with the stable scene emerging as a landmark in on-screen eroticism. (Both actors admitted to sexual arousal while filming.)
While I consider Guy Williams to be the definitive Zorro, Antonio Banderas is more than engaging. He's the first Hispanic actor to play the Spanish Fox, infusing the character with agility, wit, and charm. As his mentor, Hopkins must have seemed like an unlikely candidate as an elder Zorro, but we would be fools to underestimate him. Hopkins is really the heart of the piece, generating pathos in almost every scene. As for Zeta-Jones, well, what can you say? A complete unknown at the time, she became a star overnight, and it's easy to see why. Finally, both Stuart Wilson and Matt Letscher make awesome villains, oozing evil and slime in equal doses. As for the supporting cast, my personal favorite is L.Q. Jones (The Wild Bunch) as the "legendary" bandit Three-Fingered Jack, adding panache and flair to a colorful character.
Since its theatrical release, The Mask Of Zorro has come out in Special, Deluxe, and Superbit DVD editions. All retained the same bonus features, except for the 2005 release which saw sneak previews of the sequel, The Legend Of Zorro. In addition to the Blu-ray, Sony is releasing the film yet again on regular DVD as a double bill with its sequel. Will the multi-dipping never end?
To be fair, the film has never looked better than it does on Blu-ray, its 2.40:1 AVC MPEG-4 transfer eclipsing all previous releases. When I compared it with the 2005 Deluxe Edition, the upgrade is noticeable but not quite as eye-popping as one would hope. Grain is kept to a minimum, colors are warm and vibrant, black levels are strong and deep, and flesh tones are fine (thank goodness!). Unfortunately, the high definition "wow" really isn't here.
The sword fights and James Horner's superb score are given proper respect in the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. The whip cracks are especially noteworthy, snapping through your speakers with such power it makes you jump. The explosions during the El Dorado finale pound away, as all action films should, with clear dialogue in the center channel. Sony's high quality audio presentation is once again the butter to the bread. DTS-HD tracks are also available in French and Portuguese, although the Spanish track is curiously only standard 5.1 surround. Subtitles are available in all languages including English SDH.
As mentioned before, all of the special features are holdovers from previous DVD releases, and thus are presented in standard definition and Dolby 2.0 Stereo. The one exception is BD-Live, which includes a Movie-IQ trivia track. Martin Campbell's commentary is surprisingly enjoyable, as he talks about the filmmaking process and working with the actors. Unlike many solo efforts, he does manage to keep talking throughout, though occasionally surrenders himself to repeating what's visible on screen. Even better is the 45-minute documentary "Unmasking Zorro," which, while clip-heavy, gets the job done. Gathering as many talking heads as possible and covering all areas of production, this is less EPK in nature than one might assume. Those who aren't into solo commentaries should find plenty to info to absorb here.
Rounding out the extras are two deleted scenes, which are visually rough but interesting nonetheless. There's also a music video (man, this feels so '90s) of the love theme "I Want To Spend My Lifetime Loving You" by Marc Anthony & Tina Erena. Finally, we have a behind-the-scenes sneak peek and exclusive scene from The Legend Of Zorro, which are rather unnecessary.
The Legend Of Zorro (2005) wasn't the sequel we were expecting, lacking the genuine fun and excitement of its predecessor. What's surprising is not only did Campbell return to direct, but it was written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, the same guys who revived Star Trek (2009) with thunder and passion. Oh, well…at least The Mask Of Zorro remains a joy to watch. An upgrade is not really necessary, unless you are a Blu-enthusiast or your DVD copy is due for a replacement.
Viva el Zorro! Not guilty!
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