When your most beloved franchises come to a natural end (in these days it’s usually temporarily) it’s natural to find something to fill the gap that usual leaves in the life of a devoted fan. Back in the 90’s, way before the blight of Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull made us wish George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had retired Indiana Jones after his third adventure, big Steve himself produced an absurdly entertaining modern day swashbuckler that nicely filled the Henry Jones Jr. shaped hole in my life, placed a sword in the hand of a superhero/James Bond mash up and delivered possibly one of the best, forgotten actioners of the decade…
My friends, it was time to welcome back a classic hero from a bygone age; it was time to say a fond hello to Zorro.
It’s 1821 and the Mexican War of Independence is full swing. Defending the common man from the corrupt dickery of Governor Don Rafael Montero is the alter ego of nobleman Don Diego de la Vega, the sword twirling, whip cracking righter of wrongs; the masked swordsman known as Zorro. Thwarting one last attempt to publicly snare him before the Don is forced to flee Las Californias and return to Spain, de la Vega rides home to his loving wife and newborn child, content in the fact that he’s about to finally retire his vigilante persona only to find out that the whole thing was a vast counter-trap and Montero has figured out his complicated double life. In the ensuing sword fight, de la Vega’s wife is killed and he is imprisoned only for his nemesis to pull the ultimate “fuck you” gesture by adopting his daughter and raising her as his own.
20 years later and we are introduced to Alejandro Murrieta and his brother, a pair of big hearted robbers who rob the rich and give to the needy who fall foul of impressively mental California Ranger, Captain Love. After his bro is mercilessly slaughtered, Alejando descends into a drunken stupor only to be recruited by a grizzled Diego who has escaped his imprisonment due to Montero returning with his grown up daughter Elena in tow. Brutally training his very rough-around-the-edges ward to follow in his footsteps to protect the people as Zorro, they strive to unravel a conspiracy to use slavery to mine for gold in order to buy California while simultaneously quenching their respective thirsts for vengence.
However, Elena may prove to be the deciding factor as despite being the “daughter” of the villain, she’s fallen in love with an undercover Alejandro; can two generations of Zorro save the common folk from going out in una muerte ardiente?
Martin Campbell, the man who brought James friggin’ Bond back from the brink of irreverence, proved that Goldeneye wasn’t a fluke with impressive style by resurrecting an action icon who hadn’t been seen on screen since 1981 into a cracking action adventure flick that ticks more boxes than an overachieving questionnaire filler.
Firstly, before I dive into how much I adore this movie, I feel it would be careless of me not to point out Mask Of Zorro’s somewhat problematic nature considering the fact that two of your main Mexican characters are portrayed by notoriously Welsh actors with a slight tan. Shameless cultural appropriation, even though it was back in the 90’s, kind of takes the sheen off the fact that a major, tentpole blockbuster was headlined by a Spanish actor and most of the characters played by non-white turn out to be simple-folk or simple minded villians.
With that relevant point mentioned, The Mask Of Zorro proves to be a truly rollicking ride that furiously buckles it’s swash like it’s life depended on it. Utterly uncynical and hugely better for it, Campbell weaves old-school sword slinging in with a superhero-style origin tale and some 007 type undercover shenanigans to create something that feels energetic and new while still capturing that feeling of yesteryear where your hero could fight off six guys at once while laughing like a fucking maniac.
Antonio Banderas is utterly resplendent as our hero, starting the film as a dust covered idiot who’s knowledge of sword fighting is solely that the pointy end goes into the other man and eventual morphs into an elegant sex-god, all the while going back and forth between hugely dashing to prat-falling dope with the consummate ease of a Hollywood superstar. Channeling Errol Flynn and Buster Keaton like their ghosts have a time share on possessing his body, the pulsating nuclear reactor of charisma that is Banderas generates effortless chemistry between every single actor he shares a scene with (even his horse) and it’s catching. Anthony Hopkins seems to be utterly relishing his jump from Hannibal Lecter to a suspiciously doughy crimefighter (to this day the mental old fucker still insists he did all of his own stunts and sword fighting – he didn’t) and Catherine Zeta Jones is a fiery female and her flirt/fight scene with Banderas is steamy enough to melt celluloid. The film is also gifted with some genuinely nasty villains that generate a very real and legitimate beef with each of the heroes leading to some emotionally charged duels (seriously, the marvelously cold blooded method Captain Love uses to store his booze – with a severed fucking head – is a showstopper) that are given an extra kick thanks to James Horner’s ferociously red-blooded score.
The film has a nice line in some fabulously old-school and very practical stunts, sets and some world class swordplay and the filmmakers know how to blow shit up real good with a climactic explosion given an extra oomph by having sounds of sceaming jaguars in the sound mix. It’s this overblown, tongue in cheek attitude to the larger than life antics that makes Zorro slice a big old “Z” directly into your heart (nicer than it sounds) that amusingly flirts with cheesy every chance it gets – check out Banderas and Hopkins’ respective paths to redemption and vengeance marked by how much facial hair they current sport at any given time – walking a fine line as nimbly as the lead character himself.
In a final swipe of the sword – possibly to counteract some of the whitewashing – I found out that some of the characters are actually pulled out of the history books; dusty outlaw 3-Fingered Jack, Alejandro’s brother Joaquin and Captain Love all actually existed in some form and adds an extra bit of care to this, possibly the coolest version of America’s first superhero.
Never mind the “Z”, slice an “A” for awesome.