"The Mask of Zorro" does not stint on its Zs: There's an Old Zorro (Anthony Hopkins), a Young Zorro (Antonio Banderas), even a Ms. Zorro (Catherine Zeta-Jones). No wonder the villains can be heard to gasp in fear, "It isn't just one man, damn it, it's Zorro!"
Spanish California's very own masked avenger and righter of wrongs is someone with a past: More than 50 features, serials and a TV series have been made about him worldwide, and everyone from Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power to George Hamilton, Frank Langella and France's Alain Delon have carved that final initial on any and all available surfaces.
Reviving such a venerable franchise can be a tricky business, but "The Mask of Zorro" is not a corpse that came C.O.D. A lively, old-fashioned adventure yarn with just a twist of modern attitude, it's the kind of pleasant entertainment that allows the paying customers to have as much fun as the people on screen.
Much of the media attention for this new "Zorro" will understandably be on the beautiful but little known Zeta-Jones, a spirited and sensual British ingenue whose eyes flash as much as her sword. But she is matched by Hopkins, who brings his distinctive substance and dignity to the proceedings, as well as Banderas, whose casual charm is made for a movie like this.
"The Mask of Zorro's" unheralded mastermind would appear to be director Martin Campbell. Best known for reviving the James Bond franchise with his work on "GoldenEye," Campbell has an it's-so-old-it's-new knack for getting audiences excited about revered, not to say hoary with age, material.
So it matters not that the dazzling swordplay, the stunt leaps, the tricks with horses, were not new when Fairbanks and friends employed them in the 1920s. Campbell throws himself and his cast into the proceedings with so much energy and movement that he carries us along with him.
If "The Mask of Zorro" is not cutting edge, it's also not a film to look to for plausibility. How can Zorro stride through the center of a hot, dusty plaza without a spot of dust on him, appearing for all the world like he just stepped out of a dry cleaners? How can he still have the strength of 10 and the agility of Baryshnikov after spending 20 years heavily shackled in a pitiless Spanish prison? You're just not supposed to ask.
The first close encounter with the masked man is in Old California in 1821. A defender of the downtrodden with a rock star's popularity, Zorro, the secret identity of Don Diego de la Vega (Hopkins), is the idol of two young boys and the sworn enemy of the area's snuff-taking Spanish governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), who will stop at nothing, nothing do you hear, to put him away.
After a particularly dashing adventure that photogenically ends with his horse rearing up in front of an enormous setting sun, Don Diego tells his wife and infant daughter "today is Zorro's last ride." But instead of a quiet retirement, Don Diego endures a family tragedy and ends up imprisoned in all those chains.
Twenty years later, the villainous Don Rafael returns to California with an even more nefarious plan, accompanied by Elena (Zeta-Jones), a striking young woman who thinks (though we know better) that she's the evil one's daughter.
Escaped from prison and looking like Ben Franklin with the benefits of a personal trainer, Don Diego is searching for someone to pass his skill and ideals on to. Alejandro Murieta (Banderas) was one of the worshipful young boys of 20 years past, but he lacks the patience for the Zen and the Art of Swordsmanship lessons the older man has in mind. All you have to know about the weapon, he insists, is that "the pointy end goes into the other man."
Alejandro, to be sure, needs instruction in this area, as he does about romance, horsemanship and fine manners. And though he's initially overmatched by the film's fine pair of believable villains, Wilson's shrewd Don Rafael and his icy American enabler Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), this man is nothing if not a fast learner.
Written by John Eskow, Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, "The Mask of Zorro" builds self-deprecating humor into all these situations in a way that amusingly undercuts the heroism. With good chemistry between Banderas and Zeta-Jones, especially in their numerous comic/passionate moments, this is one film that knows what to take seriously and what to leave alone.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some intense action and violence. Times guidelines: some gruesome moments, such as a head preserved in a jar.
'The Mask of Zorro'
Antonio Banderas: Alejandro Murieta/Zorro
Anthony Hopkins: Don Diego de la Vega/ Zorro
Catherine Zeta-Jones: Elena Montero
Stuart Wilson: Don Rafael Montero
Matt Letscher: Captain Harrison Love
An Amblin Entertainment production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Martin Campbell. Producers Doug Claybourne, David Foster. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald. Screenplay John Eskow and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. Story Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Randall Jahnson. Cinematographer Phil Meheux. Editor Thom Noble. Costumes Graciela Mazon. Music James Horner. Production design Cecilia Montiel. Art director Michael Atwell. Set decorator Denise Camargo. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.