"There is a saying, a very old saying: when the pupil is ready the master will appear."
The characters of Zorro (Spanish for "fox") sprang from the imagination of Johnston McCulley in 1919, appearing in the pulp story "The Curse of the Capistrano." The story (and the several that followed) found their way to Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. who brought Zorro to the big screen a year later in The Mark of Zorro. It took almost 20 years before Zorro would be seen on the big screen again, but a remake of The Mark of Zorro (this time starring Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone and featuring sound) brought the character to life again. This was followed by a number of movie serials (beginning with the 12-part Zorro Rides Again), more feature films, and a television series produced by Walt Disney. In the last couple of decades, the property has faded from view and was even greatly misused in the George Hamilton vehicle Zorro: the Gay Blade.
The Zorro property finally made its way to Amblin Entertainment where it was decided that Zorro needed to return to his roots in a period of romanticism, swashbuckling adventure, and heroic ideals. This also needed to be done without a reinvention of the character or infusing the story with anachronistic music and hip lingo like some horrible movies I could mention like A Knight's Tale. The next step was to actually have a Spanish actor portray Zorro for once, which was a novel concept, really. Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Spy Kids) was given the nod, and I can't think of anyone else who could have filled the role.
Facts of the Case
The Spanish are pulling out of Mexico, but Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) attempts one last gambit to capture Zorro, the champion of the people who has plagued him for years. When three innocent civilians face a Spanish firing squad, Zorro shows up in the proverbial nick of time. With the assist of two children, Alejandro and Joaquin Murrieta, Zorro escapes with only a minor injury. This injury, however, allows Montero to deduce that Zorro is actually Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins—Silence of the Lambs, Hearts in Atlantis). During a deadly showdown, de la Vega's wife Esperanza is slain, his daughter Elena is taken from him, his property is burned down, and he is imprisoned so that he will know that he has lost everything. It's pretty harsh, actually, but this is what you get for running around and causing trouble.
Twenty years later, young Alejandro and Joaquin (who is still wearing a medallion given to him by Zorro) turn out to be petty thieves. During an altercation with some soldiers, Joaquin is killed when confronted by Captain Love (a snarlingly evil Matt Letscher) and Alejandro decides to drown his sorrows in beer, a temporary solution if ever there was one.
Meanwhile, Don Montero returns to Mexico and ventures into a prison searching for Zorro. Not finding him, but Zorro, as crafty as ever, is incensed by the appearance of his old enemy and manages to escape. This is when he finds a revenge-minded Alejandro in a bar and recognizes his medallion. At this point, de la Vega decides to train Alejandro to become the new Zorro.
On the way we learn that Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones—Traffic) has returned to Mexico, though the lies her adoptive father has told her have obscured her origins from her, and we learn that Rafael plans to create a new Republic of California by purchasing the land from General Santa Anna with gold mined from Anna's own land. The mine, of course, is manned by prisoners, slaves, and children, something that Zorro will need to stop. Trust me when I say that this movie contains plenty of sword fights, chases, explosions, more sword fights and a little bit of romance for good measure.
The real triumph of The Mask of Zorro is the successful return of the character to his roots, though with one minor change. Traditionally, Zorro was a son of a noble who stood up for the people against a regime he despised. In The Mask of Zorro, the nobleman is the elder Zorro who trains a ne'er-do-well in the ways of the sword. It's an interesting twist that works thanks in no small part to the interaction between Hopkins and Banderas, and the training sequences are well thought out. For whatever reason, probably that he's just a great actor, Hopkins is able to elevate the performances of those around him, including the work of the usually wooden Zeta-Jones. The results? Banderas seems right at home behind Zorro's mask.
One of the problems faced by director Martin Campbell is that Zorro is an established character with an 80-plus year history. Characters do not survive that long out of mere chance. Longevity is established through compelling stories and attributes within the character that the audience can admire. Zorro, in the past, was a champion of the people. Zorro has always been a dashing swashbuckler who outfoxes his enemies in their defeat. With that said, Campbell has struck on those points to continue the tradition and it was done (mostly) without computer generated fakery. Action scenes are continuously well-choreographed and flow smoothly throughout the film. You won't even notice that this movie clocks in at well over two hours.
The action scenes are actually helped along by James Horner's unusual music score. Horner decided to use the music and sounds of flamenco dancing during the sword fights. It's very bizarre but in the end it works extraordinarily well.
The transfer for The Mask of Zorro is pretty good. Colors are firm and bold, blacks are deep, and there is no noticeable graininess. There are occasional traces of edge enhancement, but it's not at all distracting as is the case on other releases by Columbia TriStar. The Mask of Zorro is a step up for Columbia, but they're still not quite where some of the other studios are. The audio range is filled with explosions and sword fights, and makes full use of all sound channels. There's absolutely nothing to complain about here.
As far as extras go, this DVD is pretty loaded. For starters, and for those who prefer it, the full screen version of The Mask of Zorro is included. Since I believe full screen is an abomination, this review does not support it, but I'm sympathetic to those with small televisions and I appreciate the efforts to not release a widescreen and a full screen version separately. Score one for Columbia. The extras include an informative though somewhat dry commentary by Martin Campbell. It was not easy to listen to him though he does offer out some interesting tidbits, such as the facts about the pre-production work done by the previous director Robert Rodriguez. There are two deleted scenes that, upon seeing them, I can understand why they were cut out or changed. The elaborate costume designs and a solid documentary called "Unmasking Zorro" are also included and worthy of viewing. The customary trailers, advertising materials, filmographies, and a horrible music video by Marc Anthony and Tina Arena round out the extras. With a title like "I Want to Spend My Lifetime Loving You," you just know that it's some dippy love song. Rob Zombie it ain't.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Apart from some melodrama here and there, there's really nothing to complain about. Due to the quality of this package, I'm not even going to complain about the double-dip.
Martin Campbell may very well have directed the definitive Zorro movie. The Mask of Zorro is highly recommended for an evening of fun entertainment.
Columbia TriStar and all those involved with the creation of The Mask of Zorro are acquitted and free to go. Now, how about not letting us wait 40 years for a sequel?
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Martin Campbell
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