The character has been around since the early 1900’s, but it took nearly a century for the hero in black to make his way to the screen in a way that does justice to the legendary name of Zorro. What did it take to finally pull it off? A magnificent story, a fantastic fight choreographer, a director known for his ability to breathe new life into old franchises and for the first time ever, a Spanish actor playing the man behind the mask.
A black screen opens to a misty light as the sound of boots and spurs echoes around the room. The silhouetted figure of a caped man in black strides confidently into the light and draws his sword with the kind of style that lets you know he’s not afraid of anything. You can’t see his face, but somehow you know it’s staring through you intently with steady eyes and just a hint of a fox-like grin. Three quick sword strokes sear a flaming familiar “Z” across the screen, erupting in a ball of fire and a puma-like scream. Those entrancing first twenty seconds set the pace for a wild and exciting heart-pounding ride.
A good swash-buckling film is hard to come by these days. Sure, there have been some good sword fights in films over the last couple of decades but they mostly involved light sabers or historic heroes wielding medieval weaponry. The Princess Bride got in a few good jabs, but nothing compared to the old days when guys like Errol Flynn were swinging away, keeping us on the edge of our seats with the kinds of fun and fanciful acrobatic swordplay that make for exciting cinema. The Mask of Zorro revives the spirit of those classic stories, adding a modern touch to a fabulous period piece while dazzling with the kind of sword-crossing that never gets old.
It’s been nearly twenty years since the man known as Zorro rode off into the sunset after rescuing the oppressed peoples of 1800’s California. Two decades ago Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), sworn enemy of the vigilante hero uncovered Zorro’s secret identity, killed his wife, stole his infant daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and left him to rot in prison while he himself fled to his homeland of Spain to escape a looming peasant rebellion. Now the power-hungry Don Rafael has returned to reclaim California as his own and the man known as Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) finally has a chance to take his revenge.
There’s just one small problem. Elena has been raised believing the lie that Montero is her father and Diego desires nothing more than to have things set right before he dispatches the man who stole everything from him. To accomplish this, the spirit of Zorro must be resurrected, but not in Diego. Too old to play the part, he chances upon another who has the spirit and passion of Zorro, if not the skill and charm: Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas). Together they set out on a quest that is definitively Zorro: to defend the oppressed, set right what is wrong, and prove that heroism isn’t defined by the sword or the mask, but by the courage of the man behind them.
The Mask of Zorro literally has it all. Everything has been packed in: sword fighting, incredible chases on horse back, dancing, sword fighting, humor, tragedy, sword fighting, romance, a great story, incredible score and sound…did I mention sword fighting? Director Martin Campbell and his team of story writers haven’t just crafted the definitive Zorro film, they’ve created a storytelling cinematic masterpiece. It’s a thrill ride that captures the classic style of old Hollywood sword-action movies and combines it with the kinds of bells, whistles and swift pace that modern audiences live for. I love it now just as much as I loved it the first time I saw it in theaters and I have no doubt it will remain a popular favorite for years to come.
Campbell has worked the same magic for the Zorro legend as he did for James Bond with his revitalizing GoldenEye. He found an ideal Bond in Pierce Brosnan, but he has uncovered two perfect Zorros with Hopkins and Banderas. Hopkins delivers a strong performance as master and mentor, giving a real sense of class and dignity to a story that might otherwise have been overrun by boyish fancy. Banderas is Zorro. The guy can act, dance, ride horses, swordfight, romance and more, and he does it all with the kind of flair and panache that have set a modern standard for sword-fighting action heroes.
The two are matched against equally brilliant villains. Stuart’s turn as Montero is spot on. There’s nothing more disarming than an aging bad guy who lets others do his dirty work, preferring to charm his way through rough situations but still able to kick butt and take names in a sword fight. Matt Letscher plays Captain Love, Montero’s disturbed and dangerous right-hand man. He exudes creepiness with his presentation of Love’s rigid but demented sense of military honor, the perfect counterpart to Bandera’s suave style.
The movie isn’t just packed with great action. The dialogue and story are fantastic, polished and honed to perfection. Like all truly great sword duels, most of the movie’s máno a máno scenes are punctuated with the kind of zinging one liners that keep the fight as much a battle of wits as of blades. Even Zeta-Jones gets in on the action. Though smitten by Zorro’s dashing charm, Elena chooses a sword to get the man’s attention, engaging in an innuendo laced skirmish that is as much flirting as fighting.
I honestly can’t say enough good things about this movie, sufficed to point out that if Hollywood could produce this kind of quality on a regular basis, it might be safe to consider action movie-making an art form again. The Mask of Zorro is a sharp and shining steel blade among dull, rubber toy knives and like the hero of its story, revives a passion and spirit that has been absent for too long from the movie theater.
Granted the release of this Deluxe Edition disc is gratuitously timed to coincide with the release of the sequel, there’s no denying this is still an excellent package. The biggest advertising points are the behind-the-scene and sneak preview bits from sequel The Legend of Zorro, but you can quickly set those aside and get on to the good stuff.
A great place to start is Martin Campbell’s commentary. He provides a non-stop wealth of information on how the film was conceived, constructed and executed. Campbell is well spoken and has one of those resonating British vocal styles that holds your attention (the guy should voice a Disney villain someday). Combine that with his gift for staying with the film while making interesting, relevant remarks and you get a great companion track to the movie.
Follow up the commentary with the disc’s excellent, if not disappointingly short, making-of-featurette. All told there’s around 45 minutes to watch, either in parts or as a whole. Every base gets covered, from Zorro’s origins, to the concept for the film right through to costumes, sets, sword fights, and score. Most of the main cast gets a word or two in, but it’s predominantly Campbell and the producers talking in depth about the project’s many facets.
As if to flout the film’s superiority when it comes to marketing, the DVD features all dozen or so original TV advertising spots as well as the original theatrical teasers and trailers. There are over ten minutes of pure advertising most of which shamelessly features the famous moment where Zorro demonstrates his light touch with a sword mixed with an uncanny comprehension of women’s sleepwear architecture. It’s enjoyable to watch, and made me long for the good old days when movies were actually marketed for what they were, not what producers thought would sell.
There a sum total of two deleted scenes, one of which actually qualifies as an alternative ending. It turns out that the original finale for the movie fared poorly with test audiences so Campbell and company got back together to shoot the version that made the final cut. Normally I feel that test audiences are a low blow way for studios to meddle but in this case it worked out for the best. The original ending is terrible. Still, it’s nice to see it included as a bonus item. I was disappointed to discover that there was more deleted material which wasn’t included but is featured briefly in the making-of-featurette. Who knows what all else got left out of the deleted scene sections. By that light, the two entries that are there make for a sparse and disappointing offering.
The movie has truly exciting sound and score. As a James Horner fan I bought the soundtrack when it first came out and it’s still a common visitor to my CD player. I wish they could have included two additional audio tracks to the disc, one which removes all the sound and dialogue leaving just the score, and conversely one that completely removes the score allowing you to revel in the rich sound effects. It wouldn’t have been a difficult thing to pull together but would have made for some exciting ways to watch the movie.
The package rounds out with some stock still imagery including production and publicity photos and various bits of background info. Oh, there’s also the seemingly unavoidable music video. It’s sad how those are always included, despite being the most useless bonus items imaginable. With a few polishes, a few more features and a little less advertising for the sequel, The Mask of Zorro could eventually be turned into quite the Collector’s Edition (providing they go back to the cover from the original DVD release which was much more striking). Until then, we’ll have to be content with a stellar Deluxe Edition and hope that the next time around they won’t be pitching a trilogy.