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Mask of Zorro

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Mask of Zorro

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins
Director: Martin Campbell
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 130 Minutes
Release Date: July 1998
Genres: Action, Romance

*Also starring: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stuart Wilson, Gitta Alpar, Maury Chaykin, Tony Amendola, Pedro Armendariz Jr.

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When I taught high-school history I was determined that my classes would not be among the 99.44% of teens who acquired a deep hatred of humankind's record at worst, an indifference to the subject at best. So the books I assigned to them for outside reading were always historical fiction. No matter that the genre can sometimes play fast and loose with the facts. The important thing was that these kids--who were never going to become historians or scholars in that field-- acquire both a liking for the discipline and a feel for the spirit of the times. "Johnny Tremain" would do to give them a feeling for the color of the American Revolution and "All Quiet on the Western Front" for the horrors of World War I. We'd acquire the basic facts quickly in class and, in fact, would have fun figuring out where the fictitious works deviated from the truth.

Some stories play so fast with truth that we'd have a difficult time justifying their use with our chairmen and principals. The great swashbuckler "The Mask of Zorro," based on the character created by police reporter Johnston McCulley, is a good example. The bad news is that the adventures of this California Robin Hood might confuse the heck out of the readers--what was the former governor of Spain doing still tossing his weight around in California after the Spaniards were kicked out of the province in 1821? The good news is that the story of Zorro would furnish a kaleidoscopic, dare one say psychedelic, imagery about life in what became America's most bountiful state during its transition from Spanish rule to Mexico's dominion, while under the dictatorship of General Santa Anna--who later lost his leg and a huge piece of territory to the Stars and Stripes in America's most territorially enriching war.

Perhaps the biggest fib conveyed in director Martin Campbell's lush new TriStar movie "The Mask of Zorro" occurs when the older Zorro, Don Diego De La Vega (Anthony Hopkins) acts as mentor to Zorro the younger, Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas). Having taught the former thief the art of swordplay, he declares, "I will teach you charm," to which Murrieta replies, "What's that?" The trouble is that Banderas cannot help oozing charm even when unkempt in a scruffy beard, dragged along the dirt by a team of horses into captivity. This sexiest of male performers on the screen today has already stunned the skeptics with his singing ability in "Evita" and has wowed the crowds in witty movies like Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" and in the no-budget comic western that solidifed his talent with an American audience in "Desperado." Now, in the role of young Zorro previously mythologized by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in 1920, by Tyrone Power in 1940, and in a less-than- thrilling achievement by Frank Langella in 1974, he provides his rapt audience with laughs and love and adventure that keep the two-and-one-quarter hour picture throbbing.

"The Mask of Zorro" opens the way all movies should: without credits, saving the roll of acknowledgments to its proper place at the end. It substitutes the character's logo astride a buckling horse against the light of a full moon. The older Zorro (the word means "fox" in Spanish, which is why two unrelated men can adopt the commission) is captured by Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), who has taken away the man's wife Esperanza and his daughter, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while imprisoning him for two decades. Zorro had fired up the Mexican crowds against the greedy governor, who wants his arch enemy to be humiliated rather than killed. Ultimately springing himself from the dungeon, he meets Alejandro Murieta and mentors him from a common thief and clown into a swordsman who can perform acrobatic miracles and who equals Eliza Doolittle in his ability to infiltrate and impersonate a person of noble birth.

Comedy, wit, and swordplay intermingle freely in this boldly conceived adventure, as Zorro the elder teaches his charge that "a noble is but a man who says one thing and thinks another" and, when asking the still undisciplined student whether he knows how to use a sword, receives the response, "Sure: the pointed end goes into the other man."

What makes "The Mask of Zorro" so different from the usual blend of action-adventure movies today is its ability to capture the concentration of an audience with only a token amount of killing. This is no small accomplishment considering that today's moviegoers are brought up on pictures with huge body counts. How does it do this? Director Campbell relies on our love for seeing people humiliated, and this is just what the two Zorros have in mind: to make fools of people who have exploited armies of the unwashed. While carving a "Z" into the neck of the governor is among the more violent acts, Campbell tickles our funnybones by humbling young Zorro and the bad guys alike with more pratfalls than Chevy Chase can accomplish in an hour. In short, the pointed end of the sword rarely goes into the other man.

The swordfights--and there are many--are accompanied by James Horner's palpitating score which treats the battles s though they were a Spanish-American version of flamenco, all building to a climax extragantly photographed by Phil Meheux over a gold mine which is about to be blown up together with scores of Mexican laborers by the evil governor.

For the love interest, Banderas meets his match in Catherine Zeta-Jones who, as the daughter of the older Zorro, Elena, matches the daring Robin Hood equally on the dance floor and the saber-rattling grounds. Not a single curse flies in this PG-13 film, nor is there a conventional, hot sex scene. What does that mean? We don't need such gratuities if a movie has star power, some flat-out hilarious comedy, and lavishly-budgeted crowd scenes photographed with passion and good fun. "The Mask of Zorro" is a hoot.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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