Hey, everyone! Welcome to this review of The Mask of Zorro (1998). For the sake of those who’ve not seen this movie I will avoid giving away any spoilers for the movie so you can enjoy it for yourselves.
To give some background on this movie, Zorro is a character who was created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley. Set in California and Mexico during the 1840s, Zorro stories detailed stories of the young, foppish, bumbling nobleman Don Diego de la Vega as he fights for the common folk of his land against their corrupt governors as the dashing and daring black-cloaked outlaw, Zorro.
Taking obvious inspiration for the character from such literary legends as Robin Hood, The Scarlett Pimpernel, and others, Zorro first appeared in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. Pulp magazines were an inexpensive form of enterainment back in the early 20th century, operating similarly to how television works today, and were often heavily serialized.
What made Zorro truly famous however, was his first film appearance in The Mark of Zorro, a silent film in 1920. Made by the great Douglas Fairbanks it showed off and action rogue who had charisma, mystery, and was fun to watch and audiences loved it. The Mark of Zorro is often credited as setting the standard for action films throughout the remainder of the century. So why is this important?
Well, like all great characters and properties, Zorro has had his ups and downs. He saw much popularity through the 20s and 30s as Fairbanks continued to play the character but after 1940 he disappeared from the public eye (possibly due to the culture of World War II that had been established in America at the time) and a new Zorro movie was not released until 1958. From there through the 60s and 70s, the Zorro franchise only saw middling reception from audiences who had moved on from him to anti-heroes like Dirty Harry. Zorro was no longer cool. He was a cliché; a relic.
By the 1980s, Zorro had become little more than a punch line, inspiring a parody of the character by George Hamilton called Zorro, the Gay Blade. From that point it looked as though Zorro was fated to ride off into the sunset to be forgotten. But in 1996 the film rights for Zorro were picked up by Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment.
Working with TriStar they started working on producing a film that would make Zorro more of a down-to-earth hero where Don Diego would pass the torch to a new generation. The new film went through a number of production hiccups and several directors (including a young Robert Rodriguez) before settling on Martin Campbell, with Anthony Hopkins [fresh off of Silence of the Lambs and Amistad] as Don Diego and mexican actor Antonio Banderez as the new Zorro. The result of their efforts was the film called The Mask of Zorro, released in 1998.
Let me make this absolutely clear. I. LOVE. THIS FILM. It is one of my personal favorite action movies of all time, mixing a dramatic and heartfelt revenge story with exciting sword-fights and horse chases that keep you invested straight from the get go. Is it perfect? No, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
The movie starts with Zorro’s(Anthony Hopkins) quest to defeat his sworn-enemy, Governor Don Rafael Montero(Stuart Wilson), seemingly over as Montero is forced to leave California. Zorro returns home to retire his mantle and live out the rest of his days as Don Diego de la Vega with his wife and their child, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Montero however, refuses to leave without a parting shot that leaves Don Diego’s life in ruins. Twenty years later, Montero returns with some new design for California. Determined to stop him and claim his revenge and his long-lost daughter, Don Diego escapes and enlists the help of a young former thief named Alejandro Murrieta(Antonio Banderas) who he trains to become his successor as the new Zorro.
The characters in this movie are amazing, especially Alejandro and Don Diego. Banderas is great as the well-meaning buffoonish thief who still has an edge to him that makes him human. His comedy chops are impressive and help to lend a good deal of levity to a film that has a lot of very dark elements. Anthony Hopkins is terrific as always playing the tormented Don Diego, though he’s not given as much room to work with as Banderas. He goes from rage when facing Montero, to calm control as he’s training Alejandro, to subtle regret in his scenes with Elena. It’s a very well done performance and gives and understanding of the mindset of a man who has had his whole life torn apart after giving years of his life to helping the people.
Of course, our heroes are only as good as the villains they face. While Stuart Wilson as Montero is an enjoyable, he sometimes feels like a bit of a Bond villain that does things simply because he wants power and because he’s the sworn enemy of Zorro. Fortunately, this is made up for by Matt Letscher as Cavalry Captain Harrison Love. He brings with him a brutal menace and a dark sadism that makes him very intimidating and a great opponent for the new brash Zorro.
That brings me to another great thing about this movie: the action. The sword choreography was done by a man named Bob Anderson, a swordsman who trained movie fighters for everything from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to eventually training the fighters in The Lord of the Rings. It has a dance like quality to it that still feels real based on the energy of the characters and the situation. In addition to the phenomenal sword-fights, there’s a really fun horse chase that harkens back to the old days of movie stunt-work where stunt-men were continually risking life and limb to get the best shot on camera, and it shows a great deal of how much of this movie was done practically with live sets instead of CGI. This is significant because when Mask of Zorro was made, movies were in a period of time during the late 1990s where entire films all about the special effects. Disaster movies such as Independence Day, Godzilla, Armageddon and many others were created around the computer generated imagery, thinking that all they had to do to make a profit for their movies was to give the audience what amounted to a glorified light show. You can make the argument we’re seeing that again with movies like the Transformers films but that’s a conversation for another time.
By using largely practical stunt work and effects—including the largest actual explosion ever filmed at the time—The Mask of Zorro felt, for lack of a better term, more real. The stuntwork is such that you believe a guy in a black cloak and mask could do the things that you’re seeing. That’s the key to a successful illusion; what filmmakers and storytellers refer to as ‘suspension of disbelief’.
All of this is complemented by the authenticity of the set design and a beautiful score by James Horner (known for his work on movies such as Titanic, Apollo 13, and Braveheart). The score has a Latin-esque feel to it that sounds like an homage to the romantic delusions of the old school heroes that Zorro often personified.
So now that I’ve gushed about how great this movie is, what problems could it possibly have?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, Montero as the main villain lands with a bit of a thud, often being outdone by his more menacing lieutenant, Captain Love. This is further complicated by an evil plan that is not entirely clear beyond how our villains intend to fulfill their plot.
The other major problem with this movie lies in Catherine Zeta-Jones as Elena, Don Diego’s lost daughter. She’s the obvious love-interest for our hero and she plays a very vital role in the plot that I won’t spoil for you. However, she’s never given much development as a character. That is to say, she doesn’t make choices because of who she is, but rather because the plot says that’s what she was supposed to do. This is not a slight against Zeta-Jones’ acting ability—she has several scenes that she manages to convey a lot of emotion—but more the script she was given. It feels as if the writers didn’t have enough time to properly flesh her out when the project was in the cutting room for editing.
Also, remember how I went on about the score earlier? Well, the end credits don’t have the score on them. Instead they have a “hip” lyrical soundtrack in a way that was very popular back in the 90s, especially after Celine Dion did her number on Titanic. I don’t know if I’m the only one who feels this way, but whenever I watch a movie from the 90s, I always cringe whenever the titles start and one of those soundtracks starts. It’s become like a reflex action.
Overall, as a film, The Mask of Zorro is a flawed but fun action-adventure movie with exciting sword-fights and interesting characters that I would wholeheartedly recommend for anyone who hasn’t seen it. For those of you who have seen it, do you agree with me? What is your opinion on this movie?
Next Week: We shoot into the current popular dystopian young adult fictional adaptation where you’re entire future is determined by your Meyer’s-Briggs test with The Divergent Series: Allegiant
What do you guys think of the reviews so far? Is there an older movie you’d like to see me review? Let me know in the comment section below or find me on Twitter @LightWielder524
Have a great week and as always, May the Flick be with you!