Retro Review: The Mask of Zorro
After bringing the ol’ party animal, 007, out of his temporary cinematic hibernation with Goldeneye, Martin Campbell turned his sights to resurrecting another iconic cinematic figure, this one with a few more mothballs. The result was a superlative worthy throwback to classic swashbuckling films of the past. The result was 1998′s The Mask of Zorro.
The Mask of Zorro is the epitome of a crowd-pleasing film. Filled with spectacular duels, humor, arch-enemies and volcanic chemistry between stars Antonio Banderas and the impossibly beautiful Catherine Zeta Jones, Zorro succeeds as being entertainment of the highest order.
The film begins with the downfall of one Zorro (the originator of the persona, played by Anthony Hopkins), whose alter ego is Don Diego de la Vega, a nobleman whose passionate zeal for social justice runs him afoul of the villainous Don Rafael Montero. After Montero deduces that it is de la Vega behind the mask (although how he does this is completely omitted) he attacks the hero in his own home which results in the accidental death of de la Vega’s wife, his imprisonment and Montero’s fiendish action of taking de la Vega’s infant daughter, Elena, as his own.
We then flash forward 20 years where Montero’s return to California rejuvenates de la Vega out of his mental, emotional and physical prison. Meanwhile, a roguish wastrel, Alejandro Mueritta (played by Banderas) pines for vengeance against the psychopathic Captain Harrison Love, who killed his brother. This is where the main storyline finally picks up, when the two men (de la Vega and Mueritta) are brought together by chance and the elder Zorro trains his successor to counter Captain Love and Montero’s dastardly crimes against California’s citizens.
With such extensive exposition in place one might think that The Mask of Zorro becomes somewhat of an endurance test. This is partially true. However, it is in the film’s almost excruciatingly slow build-up that makes the actual storyline of the film so immensely satisfying. Campbell takes the time to slowly build-up the story’s different characters and show to the audience exactly how they relate to each other.
As the central Zorro of the story Banderas has maybe never been more enjoyable to watch (barring his psychotic work with the great Pedro Almodovar). His scenes with Zeta Jones (whose startling beauty transcends past the confines of her rather bland character) are extremely powerful – particularly their borderline erotic dance scene that transpires at a party that de la Vega and Mueritta are infiltrating. The film contains other scenes which vividly highlight the continually simmering animosity between Mueritta and Captain Love. The tension that is created by the two men’s performances and the film’s effective script reaches such as a palpable level that when Banderas finally dons the iconic mask and the two cross swords the audience is intensely involved with their conflict. Particular credit must be given here to Matt Letscher, who creates a truly repugnant depiction of authoritative sadism that any audience would love to hate.
No less effective is the film’s exploration of the contemptuous relationship between mortal enemies de la Vega and Montero. Hopkins effortlessly projects a world-weary resolve. His arc is probably the most emotional in the film, where he struggles to come to terms with what he has lost while confronting Montero, who has stolen everything from him.
The film is also notable for being released amidst the rise of CGI (which would come to dominate our lives during the 2000′s) yet contained action blissfully pulled off by real actors and stuntmen. This has a profound effect on the impact of the film’s action scenes. The blows seem to have weight and Zorro’s hyper-kinetic physicality is extremely exciting to watch – particularly the raid on the Montero mansion scene which is posted above.
Final Verdict: The Mask of Zorro is an excellent action film - defined by strong stunt work, committed performances, James Horner‘s striking score and the two sets of conflict between Montero and de la Vega and Mueritta and Captain Love. The film takes a long, long time to get going but the payoff is so rewarding because the film has taken such a long time to establish the audience’s loyalties to the protagonists and hatred for their mortal enemies. Who would have thought that at the end of the 20th Century we would have been privileged to witness not only the rebirth of Bond but also get to see Zorro, the fox, ride again.