The Mask of Zorro (1998)

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Director: Martin Cambell

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins

Review Author: Shaun

If you were to ask me what film would you watch on a hungover Sunday afternoon – this would be top of that list. “The Mask of Zorro” has something you don’t often see in modern action pictures: a sense of honour. The character takes sides, good vs. evil, and blood debts are nursed down through the generations. It also has a lot of zest, humour, energy and swordplay; it’s fun, and not an insult to the intelligence.

The movie resurrects a character first played in silent films and again on TV in the 1950’s. The director, Martin Campbell, who did “GoldenEye,” and in a sense “The Mask of Zorro” is a Bond picture on horseback: There’s the megalomaniac villain, the plan to take over the world starting with California, the training of the hero, the bold entry into the enemy’s social world, the romance with the bad guy’s stepdaughter, and the sensational stunts. There’s even the always-popular situation where the hero and the girl start out in a deadly struggle and end up in each other’s arms.

All of this action is set in Mexico and California as it was in the first half of the 19th century, when the evil Don Rafael Montero rules the land, chooses peasants at random to be shot by a firing squad, and earns the enmity of the mysterious masked man Zorro. In an opening setup, Zorro interrupts a public killing, inspires the population, and escapes back into domestic bliss. He’s played by Anthony Hopkins, who in his daytime identity as Don Diego de la Vega has a beautiful wife and child. But Don Rafael invades his home, his men shoot the wife, Don Diego is imprisoned, and Don Rafael raises the daughter as his own. Twenty years pass, and this is where the movie’s central story begins.

The best scenes in the movie are between Banderas and Zeta-Jones, who share chemistry and, it turns out, a sense of justice. There is a dance at Don Rafael’s house, at which the daughter and the visitor take over the dance floor in a passionate pas de deux, and another scene where the outlaw hides in a confessional, and listens with great interest as the young woman confesses her feelings of lust for a mysterious masked man. All of these threads come together in what starts as a duel to the death between the man and the woman, and ends in a surprised embrace.

The Mask of Zorro is a rare action film in which the villains have an evil plot that is clever in its own right rather than existing only to drive the story, and commit crimes that are integral to the story rather than merely providing a moral context for the hero to fight them. And like the classic Zorro tales of old, the film depicts Catholic priests as part of the suffering oppressed, not the malevolent establishment, and shows them aiding both Zorro’s in their mission.

The movie celebrates the kind of Western location shooting that’s rarely seen these days: horses and haciendas, gold mines and dungeons, and a virtuoso display of horsemanship. The back story, involving the first Zorro’s abiding love for the daughter who was stolen from him, is pure melodrama, but Anthony Hopkins brings it as much dignity and pathos as possible, and Zeta-Jones does a good job of handling the wide-eyed, heaving bosom, tears-in-eyes kind of stuff.

The film is a display of traditional movie craftsmanship, especially at the level of the screenplay, which respects the characters and story and doesn’t simply use them for dialogue breaks between action sequences. It’s a reminder of the time when stunts and special effects were integrated into stories, rather than the other way around. And in giving full weight to the supporting characters and casting them with strong actors, “The Mask of Zorro” is involving as well as entertaining and its worth a watch for any action movie fan.

Saying all of that there is a sequel but it’s pure shit and it’s not worth the time of watching it again for a review.

2 responses to “The Mask of Zorro (1998)

  1. Great review, I watched this so many times when I was younger – really exciting, solidly made film.
    Too bad the sequel was rubbish. Most annoying child performance EVER!

    Like

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