Before Antonio Banderas became Puss N’ Boots and before Catherine Zeta-Jones started shilling for T-Mobile, both attempted to revive a long-forgotten action hero in the late ’90s. Despite obvious intonations of Errol Flynn, romantic side stories, and swords-a-plenty, the Zorro franchise was never able to hold its audience. There have been dozens of incarnations, from film remakes to TV shows to impersonations, but Zorro and his gay blade never proved financially sound enough to warrant consistent replication.
All of the films were old-fashioned fun at the movie theater, however. They told stories of a caped crusader fighting for the working class with nothing but a faithful steed and a sharp weapon. Perhaps he’d even win the heart of a good woman along the way. And while all this may sound fairly family friendly, Zorro had an edge of abandon to him that made the man a little too risqué for every demographic. So despite an excellent opening entry for the Antonio Banderas era with The Mask of Zorro, all potential for the franchise’s future was lost after a horrific decision to pander to Hollywood’s core market – families.
But considering this is a review of the brilliantly engaging 1998 Zorro, let us revel a little bit in its excellence before allowing the sequel to spoil the franchise’s future. Director Martin Campbell’s (Casino Royale, and the upcoming Green Lantern film) first stab at the black-masked Robin Hood started with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role. Following a daring attack on the corrupt Mexican government, Hopkins’ Don Diego de la Vega is captured, his wife murdered, and his baby daughter stolen by the evil Don Rafael Montero.
He escapes prison after a decades-long detention, and, finding himself a little too old to return as Zorro, decides to train a young, hotheaded Alejandro Murrieta (Banderas) as his successor. Murrieta has his own plans for revenge, but is occasionally distracted by Elena (Zeta-Jones) the fiery and alluring “daughter” of Don Montero. Little does he know Elena is actually the stolen daughter of de la Vega, and thus intricately more involved than he could have imagined.
Yes, the plot has a touch of Spanish soap opera in it, but this only makes it all the more charming (and guiltily compelling). Though it may not add up to the conventional Americanized action flick, it includes enough of those tropes to entertain audiences in the states and still be true to its foreign setting (to be fair, part of it is set in southern California). No, Zorro was well on the way to becoming the next superhero spectacular before a fateful studio decision cost it — and us, the viewers — quite a price.
Though I am far too young to know how the pre-Banderas Zorro films were marketed, I do know the films were not made with children in mind. Maybe kids could wrap their minds around the innuendos and violence back in the day, but the current dominance of the MPAA could never allow for even the possibility of this in the post-modern movie market. And so it came to be that 1998’s The Mask of Zorro garnered a hard PG-13 rating, and its advertisements showed plenty of fighting, flirting, and Zeta-Jones (if the image of said heroine’s undressing via swordplay isn’t permanently etched in your mind, you are obviously a 100 percent heterosexual woman or a stronger man than I). The film itself proved just as enticing, and everything seemed nicely primed for a fiery sequel in 2005. Sadly, this was not the case.
The Legend of Zorro, the ugly twin to our featured original, was inexplicably presented to the public as a family film. Zorro is not for small children. Zorro is a man, or two men in the case of The Mask of Zorro, hell bent on avenging the death of a loved one. He may have a few spare seconds to flirt with some beautiful women, but being the ideal parent figure and transforming his family into a 20th century version of the Spy Kids family with wife and son fighting at his side is a preposterous notion to any devout follower of our masked crusader. The sequel turned the whole process of recreating the franchise for modern audiences foul, and the topic of another film has never been broached since the debacle of 2005.
Now, before we go any further, I should reiterate that none of the above mentioned family issues are found in The Mask of Zorro, making the sequel all the more confounding, frustrating, and truly preposterous. No, “The Mask of Zorro” is a revenge, adventure, and romance film told in a fast-paced manner with its audience’s interest at heart. From the opening fight scene with Anthony Hopkins playing an aging Zorro to the final battle filled with melodramatic revelations accompanied with many explosions, “The Mask of Zorro” engages its viewers with their most simple pleasures. It wants to wrap you up in its blockbuster mentality and seduce you by way of Banderas’ overt sexuality and Zeta-Jones several near-nude moments. It could never work and never does work as a family adventure romp where all of these suggestive themes are muted to obscurity or vanquished all together.
For those lucky enough to have never seen the disastrous 2005 version, I beg you to please disassociate it with the brilliant film that came before. A few of the disc’s sparse extras try to paint an enticing picture of the The Legend of Zorro, but that failed effort is as large as they make in the area. The commentary is standard, and the deleted scenes are, as usual, removed for a clear reason.
For those who have forgotten the franchise or somehow been completely unaware of its existence until now, I ask you to give The Mask of Zorro a chance. It will mostly likely surprise you, as it did me, with its constant stream of charm coupled with action. Also, the film reminds us why Banderas’ Puss N’ Boots is the most humorous character of the Shrek franchise — he believes he is Zorro, merely in cat form.
Finally, for the studios who were put in charge of the franchise: let this obvious dip in quality from original to sequel stand as yet another testament to how ambitious executives looking to squeeze another dollar out of an uninterested demographic can ruin great stories, and thus lose future dollars because of it. To you I ask, please, stop producing such substandard movies.