Like the New Coke and numerous other commercial products, "The Legend of Zorro," theoretically a new and improved Zorro movie, is not as satisfying as the old and unimproved version. In a zealous attempt to broaden its appeal, the Zorro franchise has drifted from the qualities that made the previous film so successful.
If 1998's "The Mask of Zorro" was spirited and sexy, "The Legend of Zorro" has designs on being, of all things, a family film. To this end, a 10-year-old boy Zorro has been added to the equation, and the results are not exciting. Imagine James Bond referring to baby formula when he says "shaken, not stirred" and you can get an idea of where the clash of cultures lies.
This is especially problematic because many of the elements that made "The Mask of Zorro" a success return for the sequel, starting with costars Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones as jointly charismatic as ever as Don Alejandro de la Vega and his wife, Elena, a woman who has apparently received a special dispensation from authorities to wear décolleté gowns 24/7, even when dropping her son off at school early in the morning.
Also back is director Martin Campbell, a man with a knack ("GoldenEye," the first Pierce Brosnan Bond vehicle, as well "Vertical Limit" and "The Mask of Zorro") for breathing life into old-fashioned action films.
Working with cinematographer Phil Meheux, editor Stuart Baird and stunt coordinator Gary Powell, Campbell has put together crisply executed action sequences satisfying enough to make you wonder why they even bothered with a plot.
But bother screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did. The result, which gives over chunks of the narrative as well as action sequences to young Joaquin de la Vega (Adrian Alonso), has cramped everybody's style and helped ensure a level of kid-friendly ordinariness.
Perhaps trying to balance that, "Legend" has constructed the kind of putatively adult story line for Alejandro and Elena that has them at each other's throats for most of the movie. Not the best use of a most alluring couple, but there you have it.
The story is set in 1850, just before California's official entry into the Union. Alejandro's alter ego, Zorro, has been working toward this for a decade, and wife Elena has been hoping that now that it is in sight, Zorro will ride no more.
It turns out that Alejandro is a classic workaholic, putting in long nights responding to injustice — and neglecting his family in the process. "You are missing your son's entire life," Elena says, just about stamping her foot. No specifics are offered about soccer games skipped and plays not attended, but we get the picture.
Soon enough the De la Vegas' are splitsville, and we have to endure the tiresome bickering that now marks their meetings and witness Alejandro turning into a painfully sloppy drunk. (One scene with a horse is shamelessly cribbed from Lee Marvin's "Cat Ballou.")
Adding to Alejandro's problems, Elena's old flame from school, French aristocrat Armand (Rufus Sewell), moves into the neighborhood and envelopes her in a full court press. And young Joaquin, who doesn't know his father's secret occupation, develops discipline problems and begins saying unsuitable (not to mention anachronistic) things like "Come on, you want a piece of me?"
Not that Alejandro has time to concentrate on stuff like that. A sinister cabal ramrodded by the evil Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund as a bargain-basement combination of Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Mitchum in "The Night of the Hunter") is threatening to destroy America using bars of soap (true story). No wonder Zorro asks the Lord to "give me the courage, the strength to wear the mask a little longer."
Despite its drawbacks, Zorro is acceptable in a pinch though not without its puzzling elements. What in heaven's name, for instance, is Abraham Lincoln, who was a lawyer in Springfield, Ill., in 1850, doing at the signing that welcomed California into the Union?
More to the point, how did a film that features several brutal deaths and a shot of a red-hot poker getting personal with a villain's posterior manage to get a family-friendly PG rating?
Thank you so much, MPAA ratings board, for your generosity of spirit. America may be puzzled, but Hollywood needs all the box office help it can get.
'The Legend of Zorro'
MPAA rating: PG for violence, peril, action, language and a couple of suggestive moments
Times guidelines: More violence and more sexual references than the rating would indicate
Released by Columbia Pictures. Director Martin Campbell. Producers Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Lloyd Phillips. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times