You know me, I love these modern (like, 1990s or later) takes on old timey adventure heroes. For example I enjoyed THE SHADOW, THE PHANTOM, THE LONE RANGER and THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, all of which were considered flops. I suspect the generation that was greenlighting these kinds of pictures is gone, and the tradition will die out, but I appreciate their contributions to my entertainment.
There’s only one I can think of that was a genuine hit. THE MASK OF ZORRO opened at #1, made $250 million worldwide, even got a sequel. One of its biggest marks was making Catherine Zeta-Jones into a movie star. Obviously you and I already knew her as a villain who switches to the good guy side in THE PHANTOM, but executive producer Steven Spielberg (DEEP IMPACT) recommended her after seeing her in a Titanic mini-series. MASK OF ZORRO was the thing most people knew her from before ENTRAPMENT, THE HAUNTING, HIGH FIDELITY, TRAFFIC, CHICAGO, etc. For screenwriters Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (SMALL SOLDIERS), who are credited alongside John Eskow (PINK CADILLAC, AIR AMERICA) and Randall Jahnson (DUDES, THE DOORS) it was the prototype epic-period-adventure-movie template they would use for four PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies and THE LONE RANGER.
As far as I know nobody ever talks about THE MASK OF ZORRO anymore. But they should. It’s fucking great.
Anthony Hopkins (BAD COMPANY) plays Don Diego de la Vega, a rich California fancy lad who moonlights as the masked vigilante swashbuckler known as Zorro. During the Mexican War of Independence he dashes around, gracefully darting across roofs, swinging with his whip, doing gymkata on flag poles, leaping over people, outsmarting, outfoxing and outfencing corrupt Spanish authorities, giving hope to peasants until, inevitably, he comes home one night to his wife (Mexican actress Julieta Rosen), baby and mansion and finds that fucking Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson, LETHAL WEAPON 3), has figured out who he is and is ready to bust him before fleeing for Spain. A soldier shoots de la Vega’s wife, the Don steals his daughter, and he gets locked up.
But during that thrilling last ride there were two peasant boys, Alejandro (Jose Maria de Tavira Bianchi) and Joaquin (Diego Sieres) Murrieta, who watched and cheered him on, and even tipped him off to an ambush. Twenty years later they’re played by Antonio Banderas (SECURITY) and Victor Rivers (L.A. TAKEDOWN) and they’re sort of Robin Hood type rebel bandits working with Three-Fingered Jack (L.Q. Jones, HANG ‘EM HIGH) until two of the three get shot by Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher, 13 HOURS, PREHYSTERIA! 3). Only Alejandro escapes to become a sloppy, vengeance-seeking drunk.
Meanwhile, Zorro is rotting away in a dank dungeon, looking like a long-haired zombie. That is until that asshole Don Rafael Montero comes looking for him, doesn’t recognize him, and assumes he’s dead. Zorro basically reactivates and escapes, as if he could’ve done this from day 1, but didn’t have a reason until that rat fuck was back on California soil. Fate brings de la Vega together with the younger but undisciplined Alejandro, who he duels with his cane and then decides to train for the benefit of one or more of their vendettas.
This is a well told story that has all the good shit you want in a movie like this. Training montages. A secret lair. The passing down of a super hero mantle. Undercover missions. Missions that go comically off the rails due to inexperience. Missions that go incredible because a couple training montages will suffice for legendary skills and grace. A hero who is a father figure to a younger hero who is in love with the father figure’s actual daughter (Zeta-Jones as Elena), who doesn’t know the older hero is her father because she was raised by the villain. Also a villainous master plan that involves stealing gold but who cares, the real issue is that they’re forcing peasants (including children) to mine the gold, and new Zorro doesn’t abide that shit.
The Zorro Cave is pretty cool. There’s a little VIP lounge type area with a table for de la Vega to enjoy wine and a smoke while Alejandro swings and somersaults over a web of ropes. They spar with swords and Alejandro does pushups between three benches over a bed of candles while de la Vega uses his back as a footrest and reads a book.
When the teacher decides the student is ready, they sneak into a dinner for the nobles, where they both get information and as a bonus Alejandro dances sexily with Elena. Alejandro impersonates a don and de la Vega his servant. I have to wonder if Tarantino was homaging (either consciously or unconsciously) MASK OF ZORRO in DJANGO UNCHAINED when King and Django use a similar (but reverse) charade to infiltrate Candyland. Of course it’s a common trope, but check out Alejandro’s outfit!
That piece of shit Don Rafael Montero is not the most colorful villain, but I think he’s a pretty good one due to Wilson’s performance. The character has got to realize he’s evil (in the opening scene he tries to execute three random peasants to lure Zorro) but Wilson plays him like a guy who would try to convince you he was actually pretty cool. Like, he’d swear he really did love de la Vega’s wife (who he got killed), and really does love Elena (who he kidnapped and lied to). He’d probly even claim to kind of like Zorro, judging from his smile as he watches him in action in the opening. Believe me, if we sat down and had a beer together we’d be best friends. I hate to do it, but I just have to kill you and lock up peasants in cages and stuff.
There’s also this little humanizing, comical touch that makes me laugh in two scenes where he reacts to Elena’s obvious sexual attraction to Alejandro. During the party scene he’s walking and talking with some VIPs and straight up does a double take to the couple’s lusty dance. Then he runs down to get a better look, pushes a guy out of the way. Doesn’t look angry. Looks scared.
(Alejandro covers for the dirty dancing with a bullshit slut-shaming move though, saying “Your daughter is a very spirited dancer!” Patrick Swayze he is not. Montero thanks him “for putting it so delicately.” The old man also makes condescending comments about women when Elena shows that she’s the only one at the table with a conscience.)
Later, Montero rushes into the stable and finds Elena half naked after swordfighting new-Zorro.
The other villain, the Captain, has that type of uptight non-charisma that would bug me even if he was nice, so I’m glad I have a legitimate reason to hate him. He just seems like such an unlikable prick, basically a bad cop who murdered Alejandro’s brother, but out of left field he turns out to be a total sicko who he keeps Joaquin’s severed head in a jar and uses it to scare Alejandro. Our boy plays it so cool that he drinks a cup of water out of the jar. And luckily is not vomiting for the rest of the movie.
Despite that fucked up shit this is a really fun, light-hearted movie full of A+ action sequences. Of course there’s lots of sword business (with all the possible matchups between the various heroes and villains) but also you get your 1800s equivalent of high speed vehicle action. He steals a pack of horses from soldiers by jumping on the one at the back and transferring from horse to horse, knocking their riders off one by one and doing show-offy tricks like standing on two horses like he’s waterskiing.
I guess it’s not even technically showing off, because nobody sees him do it. He just exists in a constant state of awesomeness.
And of course there’s a big finale with multiple duels going on at the mine and everybody helping out and the oppressed being liberated and one of the villains getting squooshed under a falling wagon of gold bars. It’s all tied up in a beautiful storybook bow and then it says “you know what, you’re a great audience, you deserve to go out on some more awesomeness. Here is silhouetted Zorro slicing a Z into the screen and for some reason it’s a Z made out of fire. You’re welcome.”
It’s beautiful. We need more bombastic shit like that in our cinema. I don’t even care that it was probly put in there as an apology for the saccharine pop ballad version of the theme music (“I Want To Spend My Lifetime Loving You” – Tina Arena duet with Marc Anthony, to the tune of the score by James Horner) that was about to send us fleeing from the theater.
Also, try not to think about the silhouette pretty much looking like the end of BATMAN AND ROBIN.
Spielberg developed the script in the early ’90s and considered directing it himself before giving it to Mikael Salomon (HARD RAIN, cinematographer of THE ABYSS), with Sean Connery cast as the older Zorro. But in 1995 Robert Rodriguez signed on, bringing his DESPERADO stars Banderas and Salma Hayek. Because of Rodriguez’s track record, Tri-Star saw an opportunity to do it at a lower budget, but he wanted a little more than they’d give him and dropped out. (As always is the case, they ended up making it for $18 million more than he was asking.) Eventually it ended up with director Martin Campbell, his followup to GOLDENEYE. Obviously Banderas stuck around, while Hayek was replaced with the Welsh Salma Hayek.
Cinematographer Phil Meheux (MAX HEADROOM, HIGHLANDER II, GHOST IN THE MACHINE, THE SMURFS) has done half a dozen movies with Campbell, and they work great together here. Here’s a nice shot where they weren’t fucking around about making iconic imagery:
We know from GOLDENEYE and CASINO ROYALE that Campbell can put together a good action scene. I remember Drew McWeeny reporting back in the day that the director used storyboards already prepared by Rodriguez. I can’t confirm that, but I buy it, especially because of all the gags in maybe my favorite sequence, the one where just-starting-out young Zorro goes to steal a horse and has to fight a bunch of guys. They pig pile on him, he crawls out from under the pile without them noticing, gets chased by some other guys, runs up and over the pile, but the pile moves as his pursuers get on top and they go flying. He swings from a rope to a chandelier to some bull horns on the wall which fall down with him and he uses them as a weapon. He finds himself face-to-stomach with a giant
(Óscar Zerafín González) who throws him across the room, where he finds two cannonballs that he uses to knock the guy out. The others watch the behemoth spit out his teeth and fall like a tree and then they look back and Zorro is in kind of a Bugs Bunny pose with a lit torch next to the fuse of the cannon.
Once he blows them away he gets carried away yelling “ZORRO! THE LEGEND HAS RETURNED!” and tosses the torch aside, immediately realizing that he has started a fire near a bunch of explosives. Banderas does a perfect smile and head nod of over-confidence when he has carried a barrel of gun powder away from the flames, but then realizes there’s a hole in it and he’s leaving a trail that is already burning down like a fuse. There’s as much detail in its cool moves and gags as in a great Jackie Chan sequence.
(And a thing that’s either a coincidence or a leftover from Rodriguez’s development: Zorro hides in a confession booth, which also happens in DESPERADO and MACHETE.)
Whatever Rodriguez’s influence, second unit director/stunt coordinator Glenn Randall Jr. (E.T., REMO WILLIAMS, ON DEADLY GROUND, THE SUBSTITUTE) does a fantastic job. And the sword choreography is by Bob Anderson, the Olympic fencer, Darth Vader light saber double and swordplay designer of HIGHLANDER, THE PRINCESS BRIDE and the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, who had also trained the most famous movie swashbuckler ever, Errol Flynn. Banderas, Hopkins and Zeta-Jones rehearsed the fights with him for two months during pre-production. Banderas also spent another four months with the Spanish Olympic fencing team. And it paid off. There are pretty obvious stunt doubles (which I find sort of charming) but also a bunch of scenes that had me thinking “Wow, he really learned to do that?”
I hope, with my love of Old Timey Adventure heroes, that I’m not being too forgiving of outmoded racial attitudes, like one of those people who try to argue that there’s nothing offensive about SONG OF THE SOUTH. I’m very aware that the Lone Ranger and his grandnephew The Green Hornet have amazing partners of other races who are unjustly placed in a subservient sidekick type role. The Phantom is my man and he does right by the natives of Bengala, but he’s definitely a White Savior. And it’s a similar story for Tarzan. I don’t think Zorro has those kinds of connotations, but I really can’t find a definitive answer as to whether he was meant to be of Mexican or Spanish descent. Created in 1919 by pulp writer Johnston McCulley for the serialized story The Curse of Capistrano, he was played by Douglas Fairbanks (who is not Mexican or Spanish) less than a year later in THE MARK OF ZORRO, inspiring the author to send him on more adventures. Whatever Zorro’s background, I support his quest “to avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians, to aid the oppressed.” People shame Zorro-inspired Bruce Wayne for being a rich dude super hero, but I think we should be asking this of more of our rich dudes. It’s good to give back.
It didn’t occur to me at first that MASK OF ZORRO might get alot of shit for the nationalities of its cast if it came out now. Hopkins and Zeta-Jones are both Welsh, with the former playing maybe-Spanish and the latter playing at-least-half-Mexican. Banderas was hyped as the first Spanish actor to play Zorro in a Hollywood production, but his character is the fictional brother of an actual historical figure who was Mexican. I didn’t remember much complaint about that at the time (or any about Banderas playing Mexican in DESPERADO) but I discovered Peter Travers did mention it right at the beginning of his negative-for-other- reasons review. A Google search for “‘mask of zorro’ whitewashing” brings up contemporary criticisms of Zeta-Jones. She might’ve gotten away with it if she hadn’t played a Colombian drug kingpin in the 2017 Lifetime movie COCAINE GODMOTHER: THE GRISELDA BLANCO STORY.
Much like THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, the other part that I think might offend 2018 sensibilities was one I was slightly iffy about at the time – the flirtatious and arguably rapey fencing match in which Zorro 2.0 slashes off Elena’s top. In the end it’s clear that she’s the one to kiss him and that her “I might scream” double-entendre was intentional, but up until then it’s definitely playing off of that shitty old idea that a hot guy forcing himself on an unwilling woman is sexy.
I would argue that the MASK OF ZORRO poster, with a black silhouette on red, evolved out of the iconographic BATMAN and DICK TRACY posters, as discussed in previous summer retrospectives. But they were smart enough to know that the same kind of merchandising onslaught wouldn’t work in ’98, or with Zorro. Playmates Toys did have a line of Zorro action figures, but not specific to the movie. It included such Zorros as Classic Zorro, Chain Mail Zorro, Barbed Wire Zorro and Cold Steel Zorro (“With Fire-Forged Daggers”) to oppose such villains as Evil Machete and Evil Ramon (who reminds me of STREET FIGHTER‘s M. Bison). I do think that the shirtless Don Diego Zorro figure looks like it could be a buffed up cartoon caricature of Banderas.
There was a four issue comic book adaptation of the movie, published by Image Comics (home of SPAWN), as well as a novelization by James Luceno, whose other licensed property novels include a Young Indiana Jones Chronicle, 21 Robotechs, around 15 Star Warses, and (fittingly) the 1994 movie of THE SHADOW.
Even twenty years ago it was kind of a tall order to ask the world to treat a Zorro adventure as a big event movie. But Campbell and friends mounted an irresistible argument. In a summer where certain others were insulting audiences with cynical, stupid repackagings of old shit reborn as instantly-dated modern crap, Campbell and friends just went for a more timeless approach of straight ahead action, romance, humor and heroic archetypes. If you like that shit, this is worth rewatching. (If you don’t, that’s kind of weird, isn’t it?)
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.