It's a pity that Zorro isn't an actual folk hero. The character was created for a serialized novel, but The Mask of Zorro might establish him as a legitimate legend anyway. It's an ambitious movie -- part historical epic, part physical comedy, part action flick, part Errol Flynn parody... and, for the most part, it succeeds as all of the above. It's not perfect in its attempts to be historically responsible; the Mexican War seems vastly elongated, and it's unclear why a U.S. army captain would have been in California at the time. It's also unclear where a Spanish nobleman would have learned to speak with Anthony Hopkins' British accent, but the man exudes class and charm, which are Zorro's most important qualities.
Hopkins plays the elder Zorro, known to the world as Don Diego de la Vega. At the start of the film, the masked aristocrat rescues several peasants from the greedy Don Montero. Triumphantly, Zorro gives an amulet to a young boy, then returns home to find that Montero has made the connection between the folk hero and his noble peer. De la Vega cannot prevent his wife's murder, his daughter Elena's kidnapping, nor his own arrest and lengthy imprisonment. But decades later, he meets the boy with the amulet once again and learns that the uncouth horse thief has vowed to avenge his brother's murder by an American captain working with Montero. The former Zorro agrees to train a successor so they can both gain revenge.
In an engrossing if implausible development, Montero and his nobles hatch a plan to buy California from Mexican leader Santa Ana, who is in the midst of a costly war with the United States. The Dons (reminiscent of a Mafia family) obtain gold for the purchase from a local mine run under conditions of slavery; they think they can dupe Santa Ana into selling the land for gold taken from Mexican property! When Alejandro-Zorro discovers their plan to bury the mine and all the impoverished miners to cover up the theft, he sets out to save the peasants. Much to his disappointment, Diego-Zorro -- who has always encouraged Alejandro to bury personal resentments -- cares only about revenge for the loss of his wife and daughter.
Elena, who has grown into a spirited young woman, has been well-raised by Montero; both Alejandro and Captain Love are smitten. But when Alejandro crosses paths with her, he's in disguise -- first as Zorro, then a priest, then a nobleman trying to infiltrate Montero's circle. And when Elena crosses paths with Diego, he's in disguise as Alejandro's servant. Of course the disguises are unraveled, the family ties revealed; the plot is not hard to predict, but it's played out with great style. When Elena confesses her lustful thoughts to Alejandro disguised as a priest, he breathlessly confuses the Ten Commandments and commands her to follow her heart. When Alejandro steals a magnificent beast to be his steed, destroying entire buildings in the process, he finds that he can't tame the horse.
The shifts from comic serial to epic story work because of the elegance of the juggling. What begins as a horrific scene in a jail turns into a comic moment with dozens of inmates all claiming to be the real Zorro, then segues into an action sequence where the real Zorro escapes. The antic romance and visual gags are more reminiscent of Zorro, The Gay Blade than the older, more serious silent films. Nonetheless, the endgame of The Mask of Zorro is played for high stakes. While the elder Zorro takes on Montero and the younger Zorro takes on Love, terrified peasants await a holocaust by dynamite and the gold which will buy California's freedom hangs by a cable over the mine. It's a very tense sequence, even though we know in our hearts that the heroes have to save the day, for such high stakes always involve sacrifice of some sort.
The cinematography is breathtaking -- California vistas, crowded courtyard scenes, a sensual dance at a party. My favorite sequence involves a swordfight in front of a mirror, which must have been very difficult to film without the camera crews showing up in the reflection. Long tracking shots follow horses, bullets, and the bodies of wooden-acting soldiers flung from windows. I'm not an expert on dress for the era, nor whether the horses wear the right saddles, but the historical details seem quite convincing.
We learned in Evita that Antonio Banderas can play over-the-top characters with pathos and dignity. As Zorro he doesn't sing, but he dances, swashbuckles and swings from the rafters while spouting dialogue like, "I am not a man with a vision, but I am a man looking for a vision." He hasn't been this funny since his early career in Pedro Almodóvar films, reveling in bawdy, physical humor. Yet he's quite effective too in the emotional scenes, particularly after the death of his brother and while he's competing for Elena's love.
The character's transition from revenge-obsessed drunkard to man of the people seems just as abrupt as his transformation from peasant to faux Spanish nobleman. It all hinges on a scene in which de la Vega, backlit by candles in a magnificent chamber, tries to teach Alejandro something the Don believes to be beyond his reach: "Charm." To achieve this, he must learn the virtues of patience and artifice, manners and comportment. This is the sort of movie where people throw aside their guns to prove their prowess with swords, as if getting the job done right is just as important as getting it done at all; it's a lesson that takes Alejandro a while to accept.
Yet "charm" is the wrong word, for it's really class that Alejandro lacks -- a telling slip on the part of the aristocrat, whose own sensibilities don't allow him to identify with the threatened peasants the way the onetime horse thief does. Zorro needs real charm and false class to be a hero, not the other way around. Hopkins' accent and noble bearing don't quite fit on a Spanish Don who's spent decades in jail, and it's obvious when his stunt double performs his acrobatics. But he and Banderas play off one another to great effect, and he's impressive with a sword. Elena isn't quite as well-rounded. It's unclear where she gets her revolutionary political sentiments, nor why her conservative adoptive father had her trained to fence and tango. On a superficial level, Zeta-Jones is stunning and vivacious; she and Banderas look delectable slicing the clothes off one another. This is a story about how boys become men; the strong woman serves primarily to demonstrate their fortitude.
Zorro's appeal stems from his contradictions. He's smart but silly, brave yet selfish, charming in spite of his rough edges, grounded in folk history though entirely fabricated. Mask of Zorro does a fine job making him all things to all people. This blade hits its mark.
[Michelle Erica Green]