The Mask of Zorro (1998)

D: Martin Campbell
S: Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Wonderful old-fashioned swashbuckler; terrific entertainment for young and old, unless you happen to be under twelve and Irish, in which case you are not allowed to see it. The baffling decision by the Irish Film Censor to rate the film '12' (not even PG) denies children used to heroes in movies and TV shows who either sell products or dispense justice for laughs the opportunity to see a film which is generally sincere about notions such as honour and justice and offers quite a positive role model. A pity, but there it is.

Anyway, as far as the film itself is concerned, The Mask of Zorro is a terrific remake of the venerable serials, features and TV shows which have abounded since the silent cinema, and which have influenced generations of superhero stories (including Batman). In early nineteenth century California, a masked hero (Anthony Hopkins) fights the unjust Spanish Governor (Stuart Wilson) for the freedom of the people, returning after battle to his lavish home and loving wife to tell stories of his adventures to his baby daughter. In an act of vengeance, the Governor causes the death of his wife, takes the child for his own and sends our hero to jail for twenty years as he flees to Spain and the new country of Mexico comes into being. Twenty years on, Hopkins escapes from prison and befriends a former street urchin (Antonio Banderas), whom he trains to wear the legendary mask of Zorro and see justice done once more as Wilson returns to California with nefarious plans for its future. Meanwhile his baby girl has grown into the beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the stage is set for all manner of emotional, romantic and dramatic confrontation.

Ahhh. Without a trace of cowardly postmodern irony but not without a justifiable sense of humour, this is a terrific example of worthwhile entertainment. While providing escape from the everyday, the film does not deny the existence of real-world emotions and encourages the viewer to feel something approaching a sense of right about the actions of its central character. In this case righteousness is not merely a right-wing vigilante revenge fantasy, but part of a moral achievement which ultimately supersedes personal vendettas (though by doing right, the characters are rewarded by being able to sort out their personal problems as well). It is far from an uplifting social drama or an eye-opening study of political conditions, but it restores a sense of genuine heroism to the activities of its central character rooted in his ability to repress and control his personal desire for vengeance in favour of direct, positive social action in the service of the people. It is still a bourgeois fantasy, of course, but then that is part of the way in which films can enrich the human heart. Zorro is larger than life, but he represents an important capacity for good which the film does well to highlight and encourage.

The Mask of Zorro is a well balanced mixture of action, drama and comedy. The atmosphere is flavourful but not forced, aided by splendid costume design by Graciela Mazon and production design by Cecilia Montiel (plus a flamenco-tinged score by James Horner). There are a number of dodgy mattes, but there is a luxurious look to the film which suits the romantic tone very well. Despite the generous helping of action delivered by the steady hand of Martin Campbell, it is not merely a succession of trailer-made set pieces either, and the film is well paced to allow its threads of theme, narrative and character to develop and reach a climax at just the right point. The climax itself is a little bit cluttered, but given how well the elements have been arranged to set it up, this is forgivable.

Banderas was a perfect choice for the younger Zorro, with Hopkins surprisingly good playing his elder, avoiding many of the cliches of the 'old master' role with a character who is both interesting and consistent on its own terms. Jones handles herself well in every way (including a remarkable sword fight she carries out in attire most unsuitable for the occasion (the conclusion of this scene was perhaps unnecessary, however), and plays well with her co-stars. The entire cast performs admirably, and despite the persistent sense of a James Bond movie with sword fights (pre-story set up, evil villain revealing his plan to a room full of would-be partners, second-in-command henchman to be disposed of before the big guy gets it, nineteenth century gadgets...), there is no sense of the apologetic campiness which often dogs the postmodern costume drama (which was also true of Randal Wallace's The Man in the Iron Mask). This is significant also because Zorro's last major big screen outing was the embarrassingly unfunny send up Zorro, The Gay Blade, which attempted to point out that men in capes are fundamentally would-be drag queens, which was no fun for anyone involved. At some level it is necessary to take this kind of thing seriously enough for the audience to enjoy themselves, otherwise there is no point in trying at all (Batman and Robin leaps to mind). The Mask of Zorro knows this, and though there are perhaps one too many scenes of Banderas falling off his horse, the film's sense of humour is part of its characters, not something added in as a wink to the audience.

The real fun comes from the marvelously choreographed fight scenes, with plenty of suspicious stunt double work in the grand tradition of the Hollywood swashbuckler. Elaborate horseback chases, wooden chandelier swinging, arras-chopping, somersaulting and general combat mayhem is nicely set against a sexy dance sequence with Banderas and Jones and comedy between Banderas and Hopkins. It does occasionally feature scenes of graphic violence, usually committed by the villains, and some odd stuff involving Matthew Letscher's fascination with keeping parts of his victims as mementos, but on the whole the action is broad, exciting and playful. Yet like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the point is that good prevails in the end, and the film's overall message is positive and enriching. It's not going to change the lives of the adults who view it, but it will certainly entertain them if they have a modicum of affection for the genre. But it might teach younger children a thing or two which many recent films do not about right and wrong, which while it sounds pedantic, is a strong recommendation amid the equivocation and apathy of the late twentieth century.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.