Zorro rides a big black horse who comes when he whistles. But this horse, named Toronado (Spanish for “Tornado”), has more on his mind than mere loyalty, no matter how fierce. The horse also offers occasional commentary on the action — in particular on his rider’s behaviors and decisions — in the form of heavy breathing and widening eyes, as well as liquor-drinking and even a little smoking. A magnificent creature and smart to boot, Toronado might consider signing on for his own franchise.
Here, however, in the second movie in the most recent Zorro franchise, namely, The Legend of Zorro, Toronado is playing third or fourth fiddle to Zorro, also known as Alejandro. Zorro (Antonio Banderas) first appears leaping over wagons and across rooftops, shooting hats off of villains (not killing them). In this early scene, he’s ensuring that votes cast in 1850 San Mateo will be counted toward California’s statehood, in turn granting the “poor and desperate” (many Mexican born) inhabitants access to rights and property. That the promised glories of U.S. capitalism are at the moment chugging along on the tracks laid by slavery is no small matter, as Zorro is a people’s hero. Zorro retrieves the chest of votes from the gnarly men who have stolen it and delivers it to the governor’s mansion, where he is duly thanked and beloved.
This opening action is acrobatic, the explosions thrilling, and the sword-fighting is sensationally swooshy, winning Zorro all kinds of approval from his appreciative fans, including 10-year-old Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). He is, in fact, Zorro’s son, though the boy doesn’t know it. To keep his wife Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joaquin safe, Zorro hides his identity, pretending to be the wealthy but rather wussy Alejandro — no small disappointment to Joaquin. Even as Joaquin adores his comic-booky hero figure, Elena is resenting Alejandro, mainly because she’s been playing wifey for 10 years, in their well-appointed mansion, and yearns for her own action. When Zorro heads home from the votes escapade, she declares her unhappiness and when she learns statehood might now be in danger — the marker Zorro had set for his retirement — she essentially kicks him out. Angry at her petulance, Alejandro gazes back on her from a hilltop, Toronado rearing up to strike a gorgeous goodbye pose, and with a cut to Zeta-Jones’ exquisite face framed by a window, the scene and apparently the marriage is over.
In other words, Martin Campbell’s second installment is looking to replicate the circumstances of the first, and so it has to undo The Mask of Zorro‘s happy ending to start from scratch. Except for the boy. The undeniable sign of the change in their relationship, Joaquin has to be dealt with, and so he is. The movie turns him into a comic plot device, so great an admirer of Zorro (and apparently genetically gifted as well) that he can replicate some of his father’s signature moves. This much is demonstrated when Joaquin rebels against his schoolteacher’s restrictive classroom policy and shoots him with his trusty slingshot: what follows is an antic set-piece demonstrating the boy’s in-born/well-honed skills, as he flips over desks, swordfights with sticks, and eludes his scolding elder by leaping out the window, as his fellow students cheer him.
The father-son matching makes clear that the family must be reunited, and so the movie gets on about the business of creating obstacles to that inevitable end. Among these are Elena’s new man, the immediately suspect French Count Armand (Rufus Sewell), and his nefarious, spectacularly scar-faced henchman McGivens (Nick Chinlund), whom Zorro leaves toothless in the opening sequence. Now returned with wooden teeth and a prodigious grudge, McGivens takes it out on the peasants whom Zorro is sworn to defend, resulting in a harrowing assault on a poor couple’s home and a gruesome murder, in order to appropriate their meager bit of land for a larger project.
This larger project reeks of a Wild Wild West sort of terrorism: an international cabal (based in the secret “Knights of Aragon”) is building a crater-making, nitroglycerine-based weapon. Their goal (protecting U.S. borders) and their technological bent make them seem all too relevant for 2005. As they plot to launch mass destruction upon Washington D.C. (where the men in charge seem incompetent, or at least out of the loop), the Knights outline a political framework. They want to keep Mexicans out and at the same time make use of slave labor (in the form of Chinese “coolies,” glimpsed briefly as Zorro borrows an outfit in order to infiltrate the villains’ bomb-making facility).
In a brief complication that echoes Robert Rodriquez’ Once Upon a Time in Mexico, another interested party appears in the form of Pinkerton agents, keeping track of U.S. interests in California’s land and work forces. That all of this is filtered through Alejandro and Elena’s marital discord replicates the parallels between domestic and transnational politics James Cameron is so fond of excavating, wherein the world’s welfare depends on that of the nuclear unit. You might hope they sort it out this time, and don’t have to try again in seven years. Or, maybe they can hand off the next installment to the horse.