I can’t remember the first time that I encountered Zorro. Recalling my childhood, I get flashes of Guy Williams and Duncan Regehr. I know I wore the mask and cape for Halloween at least three times. Raised on Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, the swashbuckling was, of course, very appealing to me. And the fact that Zorro’s name translated to that of my favorite animal (the fox) certainly helped. But the definitive version for me has always been—hell, always will be—Antonio Banderas’ roguish thief-turned-dashing hero. The Mask of Zorro came out when I was 8, and while I may not have any vivid memories of seeing it in theaters, it clearly left an impression: the picture I chose for my Cursive License (anybody else get one of those in third grade?) was me dressed up as El Zorro, sporting a greasepaint mustache and a cheeky grin. It’s cute as hell, though I probably felt really cool at the time. And while I daydream myself into adventures with alarming infrequency these days, my heart still soars when I hear James Horner’s score or Stuart Wilson’s hoarse admonition of: “It isn’t just one man, dammit! It’s Zorro!”
The Mask of Zorro (1998):
The Plot: As his dashing alter-ego Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) fights to free the people of 1800s California from the oppression of the Spanish aristocracy, led by the sinister Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson). Diego vows to settle in domestic bliss with his wife Esperanza (Julieta Rosen) and infant daughter Elena (a baby, later Catherine Zeta-Jones), but wouldn’t ya know it? His nemesis shows up, his wife dies, and the bad guy walks away with the baby. Some days you just can’t a break. Diego swears vengeance on his way to a Monte Cristo-style prison. Don Rafael buys parenting books and heads back to Spain. Twenty years later, Diego escapes from prison and teams up with the heavily-bearded thief Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), just in time to thwart the now-returned Don Rafael’s sinister plan to buy California from General Santa Anna. Oh, and Alejandro wants to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of Captain Love (Matt Letscher), a sadistic bastard. Swashbuckling ensues.
As you probably gathered from my intro, I view this movie with a certain a degree of nostalgia, Hollywood’s marketing tool du jour. But I wouldn’t be reviewing it if there wasn’t more to the film than a thin connection to my ever-receding childhood. The Mask of Zorro is a genuine, bona fide, electrified adventure movie with an engaging story, great swordfights, likeable characters, and exuberant lead performances. It is, if I may use a phrase common among those in my profession*, “actually quite good.”
Those of you who read my review of Appaloosa last month will know that I’m a fan of characters that live by a code. A big part of The Mask of Zorro is a sense of duty overcoming a desire for revenge. Don Diego is an honorable man, dedicated to serving the people. Zorro’s purpose is to fight the tyranny of an uncaring elite class, defending those without power. He passes this code down to Alejandro, teaching the young thief to master his feelings so that Zorro can once again fight for the poor and disenfranchised. Diego also gives him the skills he’ll need to avenge his brother’s death, but that’s really just icing on the sweet, spongy cake of justice.
This decision to be good, to put aside personal vendettas in service of a loftier goal is one of the reasons why The Mask of Zorro works so well. It’s old-fashioned heroism, un-ironic and sincere. There’s plenty of humor in the film—Alejandro’s first escapade behind the mask ends in goofy mayhem—but never at the expense of those values. Unlike the recent Lone Ranger reboot, Zorro has no desire to tear down idols. Diego maintains a quiet dignity, largely thanks to a dedicated performance by Anthony Hopkins, and Alejandro’s arc is about a lost soul growing to fill his hero’s kickass leather boots. Decent guys, working to become better guys so they can help other people. Boom. Switch “guys” to something gender-neutral and I just defined heroism. Get at me, Webster.
But don’t think that this film is all honor codes and manly sacrifice. Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, somehow also Green Lantern) and writers John Eskow, Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio (The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Pirates of the Caribbean, respectively) hit exactly the right tone with this film. For all the vendettas, attempted public executions, and body parts in jars, The Mask of Zorro is incredibly fun.
The Mask of Zorro is capital “a” Adventure. There’s swordplay, intrigue, chases on horseback, romance, erotic swordplay, a long-lost daughter, and a daring prison escape. Breasts heave. Sinister plans are heroically foiled. Swashes, as they say, are buckled. And all throughout, the film has a sense of warmth and humor that is utterly infectious. Not only do you care about the characters, but you enjoy spending time with them. Even at its silliest, when Alejandro’s attempts to steal a horse go totally awry, The Mask of Zorro never descends into schlock territory. Nor does the film overindulge when it’s at its darkest—personal loss, a head in a jar—instead using those grim moments to lend dramatic weight to character arcs.
Perhaps one of the film’s greatest achievements is that the romance between Alejandro and Elena actually works. We root for these kids. Zeta-Jones does a good damsel in distress and headstrong daughter, but she really shines in scenes where she’s allowed to engage. The courtship between the two—first at a party, culminating in a sexy dance, then in an even sexier swordfight—works so well because the script treats them as equals. They’re both intelligent, decent, super attractive people who know how to use a sword. That’s gotta be an 87% match on OK Cupid, at least.
Of course, Banderas and Zeta-Jones are both immensely appealing, and have excellent chemistry. The rest of the main cast is equally up to the task of selling this old-school adventure story. Hopkins, always a sure bet, is ever-watchable as the wise old mentor with a tortured past. As I said before, he lends a quiet dignity to the character, but he also imbues Don Diego with a sense of humor, which is something that I like in my characters. Makes them feel more human.
Being an old-school adventure story, The Mask of Zorro has old-school adventure villains. Stuart Wilson gives it his all as Don Rafael, sneering and cruel, but with a surprising amount of pathos. He truly does love his daughter, even if he did kidnap her from her father when she was a baby. He’s a bad guy, but there’s just enough dimension behind the badness to make the character an interesting and worthy nemesis for two Zorros.
Conversely, Captain Love, Alejandro’s nemesis, is pretty much just a sadistic bastard. Letscher manages to be ice cold without hamming it up. I’ve said before, probably also in the aforementioned Appaloosa review, that I tend to prefer antagonists with a reason. Don Rafael fits the bill, but Captain Love is pretty one-dimensional. That having been said, the dude is really fun to watch, and it’s immensely satisfying when he gets stabbed and then has a load of gold bricks dropped on top of him. Also, his batshit tendency to keep souvenirs from people he’s killed leads to a great one-liner.
The Mask of Zorro is that rarest of things: a modern swash-buckler that not only gets the tone right, but also has well-developed characters and something to say. It’s fun, and one of the few things from the 90s to stand the test of time. I’ll be re-watching it for many years to come. If you haven’t seen it since you were a kid, then put on those nostalgia goggles—like beer goggles, but worse for your brain cells—and grab some popcorn, or beer, or whatever.