"Do you know how to use that thing?"
Who was the world's first superhero? (In the modern sense, before you wags start reaching back to Hercules or somebody.) Superman? Nope: teen dreamers Siegel and Shuster unleashed the Krypton Kid on Metropolis in 1938. Doc Savage? Better: 1933 saw the premiere of Lester Dent's Man of Bronze. How about Popeye? Getting warmer: the spinach-chomping sailor debuted in Elzie Segar's Thimble Theater comic strip in 1929.
No, pop culture's original masked superhero with a secret identity (foppish Don Diego de la Vega, a prototype of nerdy Clark Kent) was the dashing Zorro, conjured up by pulp scribe Johnston McCulley way back in 1919, and first brought to the silver screen in the person of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (The Mark of Zorro) the following year. Younger viewers know the character better from the Disney-produced TV series version of the 1950s starring Guy Williams, or the 1990s knockoff with Duncan Regehr.
Most recently, in 1998 producer Steven Spielberg and former Bond flick director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) joined forces to bring not one, but two Zorros to the cinema in what may now be regarded as the definitive presentation of the legendary swashbuckler: The Mask of Zorro.
Facts of the Case
The Fox—"Zorro," en Español—has long since retired from his task of keeping the wealthy Spaniards out of the henhouses of poor Mexican laborers. Or so it seems to the common folk who regard the enigmatic swordsman as their champion and protector. Unbeknownst to the populace, Don Diego (Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal, Red Dragon) hasn't retired—he's been locked up in a dank prison cell for the past two decades, cast behind bars by the venal Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson, Vertical Limit) after Montero killed Don Diego's wife (more or less accidentally) and stole his infant child.
Now Montero's a filthy-rich land baron who plans to purchase California from the Mexicans with gold he's been stealing out from under the government's nose via an illicit mining operation. With the time ripe for Zorro's return, Don Diego escapes from his dungeon and takes on an unlikely apprentice: a crude ne'er-do-well named Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas, Spy Kids) who's been surviving on the streets since childhood and has his own score to settle with Montero's accomplice, Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher, TV's Good Morning, Miami). Under Don Diego's tutelage, former Artful Dodger Alejandro develops into both a cultured gentleman and the next hero behind Zorro's mask.
Complicating matters is Montero's gorgeous daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Entrapment, Traffic)—or rather, Don Diego's gorgeous daughter, for indeed Elena is the grown-up and filled-out adult version of the baby girl Montero snatched away all those years ago. Of course, she and the now-debonair Alejandro soon begin making goo-goo eyes at one another, but she's even more curious about the black-clad stranger whom she confronts one day in her father's stables.
It will command all the swordsmanship and derring-do the two Zorros can marshal to foil Montero's nefarious plan to become lord of his own private kingdom by the sea, to exact double measures of revenge for loved ones wronged, and to restore honor and dignity to an exploited people.
In a scene deleted from the final cut of the film, Alejandro Murrieta picks the pockets of a wealthy couple disembarking from a carriage. "You're a thief," clucks Don Diego, the disapproving father figure, and stalks away. Alejandro shrugs his shoulders and mutters to himself, "And a good one."
Too bad the same can't be said of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment. They too are thieves, but not particularly good ones.
This Superbit Deluxe Edition marks the third release of The Mask of Zorro on DVD. The original, fairly skeletal DVD, released in December 2000, was supplanted by a Special Edition in the fall of 2001. The SE added a nice audio commentary by director Martin Campbell, replaced the stock production featurette with a lavish 45-minute documentary, and tossed in a music video, a pan-and-scan Blockbuster-accessible transfer, a DTS soundtrack, and a handful of other diverting trinkets. Now Columbia TriStar gives us Superbit Deluxe, and what do we gain in exchange for the triple-dip? As Zorro himself might say: "Nada." There's hardly anything on this new two-disc set that wasn't on the previous Special Edition. In fact, there's less: the full screen travesty is gone (no loss there), but so also is the worthwhile commentary track by Campbell.
"But, oh," the Judge hears you cry, "this is a Superbit transfer." That and a couple of Sacagaweas will net you a mocha latte at Starbucks, my friend. Comparing the Special Edition and Superbit transfers scene for scene on my 35" Trinitron proved only that one would need the bionic vision of the Six Million Dollar Man to detect any significant difference in quality between the two. Even the bitrate meter on my DVD player is unimpressed with the mythical wonders of Superbit. So, for the privilege of upgrading to a microscopically better visual presentation and smacking a gauntlet across the chops of the horror that is pan-and-scan, the DVD buyer forfeits one of the most valuable supplements on the previous SE release.
Thank you, Columbia TriStar: may I have another?
This shell game is pathetic not only in principle, but also because The Mask of Zorro is a terrific film, the kind movie fans would willingly consider forking out extra cash to upgrade to the best available disc for their collections. It's a first-rate adventure yarn, knowingly directed by Campbell and acted with aplomb by a standout cast. Antonio Banderas has never been more watchable than he is here, as the brash, not-conspicuously-heroic ruffian who matures into a valiant knight-errant. Anthony Hopkins brings his usual icy authority to the role of the aging master; he's especially good in his quiet scenes with Zeta-Jones, when his character knows the true nature of the relationship between them, but she as yet does not. Stuart Wilson and Matt Letscher make hateful bad guys. And Zeta-Jones—perhaps the most transcendently beautiful actress in films today—summons up a creditable performance (if a hit-and-miss Spanish accent) as the headstrong Elena.
Swordplay aficionados haven't seen any this stylish since The Princess Bride. No wonder, since Robert Anderson, the sword master here, coached Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin in that classic fantasy. (Anderson is also the man behind the spectacular fight choreography in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.) There's a nicely fashioned bit of by-play between Banderas and Hopkins when Alejandro, yet unskilled in the ways of fencing, tries to impress Don Diego with his flashy blade-handling; the old lion lets the cub make a fool of himself, then, with lightning swiftness and supreme economy of motion, swats the weapon out of the young man's hand. (Devotees of Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark will recognize the homage.)
The only complaint to be raised about the film is that it would have benefited from a scintilla of judicious editing. It feels overlong at two hours and seventeen minutes, and lags a tiny bit in the middle. Overall, though, director Campbell keeps the story moving briskly forward, and his characters are so rich and real that we scarcely mind spending a few extra moments with them.
As was true of the previous Special Edition, this new Superbit transfer of The Mask of Zorro looks and sounds fantastic. Colors radiate from the screen, contrasts are crisp, shadows are full and breakup-free. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (and, presumably, the DTS alternative, for those thus equipped) is very nearly reference-quality, offering constantly involved surrounds and cavernous bass. James Horner's matchless score is marvelous—its subtly repeated motifs linger in your mind's ear for days afterward—and the recording does the music justice. All of this was true of the earlier release, which, as has been noted above, obviates the need for still another DVD treatment.
Among the extras, the documentary feature entitled Unmasking Zorro is a shining example of the form. The story begins with the creation of the Zorro character, touches on its early film appearances, then delves into the making of the picture at hand. Campbell, Banderas, Hopkins, Zeta-Jones, and several other members of the cast and production team contribute insights, interwoven with behind-the-scenes footage. The piece is extravagantly produced and well organized, with commentary that reaches beyond the usual banal "I had so much fun making this film!" marshmallows we too often hear. Banderas speaks movingly about his opportunity to become the first Spanish-speaking actor to portray this quintessentially Latin hero. The fencing sequences stand out among the backstage snippets.
Two deleted scenes—one of which is a strikingly different (and less satisfying) ending sequence—are included, as are twelve—yes, twelve—TV commercials for the film, plus two anamorphic theatrical trailers: a teaser and a full-blown version narrated by the all-too-familiar Voice of Doom ("In a land where freedom is a memory…"). Masochists can torture themselves with a mind-numbing performance of the syrupy theme song I Want to Spend My Lifetime Loving You (or maybe just watching this interminable video) by pop vocalists Marc Anthony (completing the Anthony/Antonio/Anthony trifecta) and Tina Arena (thankfully unaccompanied by sisters Gina, Lena, Dina, and Hockey). Attractively presented publicity stills, costume sketches, and bio/filmographies of Campbell, Banderas, Hopkins and Zeta-Jones round out the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Anyone else ever notice that "Superbit" is an anagram of "ripe bust"?
Probably just a coincidence.
Great movie, but if you've bought it before (the Special Edition, at least), stow your simoleons. If you enjoy thrilling action/adventure, and you don't already own a copy of this film on DVD, scout out the SE and you'll get everything here that's worth having plus a darned good commentary by Martin Campbell to boot. (You may even save a couple of bucks.)
Columbia TriStar is found guilty of flagrant triple-dipping and inflated marketing hype in the first degree. The Judge sentences the studio to twenty years in a Mexican prison with a talking Chihuahua. Zorro, righter of wrongs and uplifter of the underdog, is free to roam the countryside making the sign of the "Z." We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Production Documentary: Unmasking Zorro
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