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Zorro has been a fixture in American cinema for decades. Part cowboy, part pirate, and maybe even a little bit Batman, he’s been protecting the poor and the innocent from the corrupt Mexican government for as long as most of us can remember. But he’s never been better than when played by Antonio Banderas, in the surprisingly grand 1998 film The Mask of Zorro. Seven years later, and maybe five years too late, a now rapidly aging Banderas is back in the mask and on top of old Toronado for a sequel.
The Legend of Zorro takes place ten years after the events in Mask of Zorro. Don Alejandro de la Vega (the real identity of Zorro) is a father now, and his home of California is on the verge of joining the free United States of America. America on the other hand, is stepping towards the precipice of civil war, with Confederate states jockeying for position. It’s the calm before the storm, and California’s entry into the Union on the side of the Northern states will probably be enough to push the Confederacy into open succession. With the vote finished and Cali ready to join the U.S., Zorro has promised his wife Elena (Catherine Zeta Jones) he’ll retire and spend some time with this family instead of running around stabbing villains. But now that the hour has come, Zorro cannot resist the call of the people. The couple fights, and Elena’s response is divorce. The result is a drunken, cranky Antonio Banderas stumbling through the streets atop his equally inebriated hero horse Toronado, and we’re treated to a hilarious scene in which both horse and rider end up slumped against an alley wall completely sloshed.
The real story though, isn’t the end to Zorro’s marital bliss. Rather, it’s another complicated plot to screw over the poor people of California. Of course since saving the poor isn’t enough to keep us interested, there’s also danger to the entire United States, because movies are always better when the stakes are bigger and impersonal… aren’t they? The man behind it is French, because there are few things more instantly villainous than a dripping French accent. Much of the film is spent with Zorro and his ex-wife playing spy or detective, trying to figure out what the heck that smarmy French dude who looks like Rufus Sewell is up to.
Gone is Anthony Hopkins, who starred in Mask of Zorro as Alejandro’s mentor. His gravitas is missed. In his place is Son of Zorro, a precocious 10-year-old boy named Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), with no idea that it’s his father carving Z’s on all the bad guys’ doors. Traditionally, the addition of a cute kid signifies either screenwriter desperation or a deliberate desire to skew your audience younger. In the case of Zorro, it’s clearly the latter. While the first movie was intended for family audiences, it was PG-13 and played a little heavier. Legend of Zorro is a PG movie, and as a result there’s a lot of swordplay in which no one is ever killed. It’s a shame too, since the fight choreography is sometimes stunning, and the flash of Zorro’s sword as brilliant and electrifying as ever. But no one is ever stabbed, no one is ever cut, and the movie goes out of its way to find new methods of bonking people on the head. Note to Zorro: Your sword has a pointy tip. Use it.
More than it’s watered down rating, the big problem with Legend of Zorro is it’s length. It could have and should have been a fast paced adventure flick, and had it clocked in at 90 minutes Campbell might have had a sharp little follow-up to the original. But the movie drags on for over two hours, leaving spots where the story sags and seems far too tedious.
Still, the movie has great moments. A scene where Zorro jumps his horse onto a moving train is particularly electrifying. This is in part because veteran director Martin Campbell is effective in setting up big stunts, and in part because by then you’ve become attached enough to the characters (both rider and horse) that you’re caught up with them in their post-jump, horse-rearing celebration.
The Legend of Zorro is not the nearly perfectly done movie that its predecessor was, but it’s still a fun, exciting piece of swashbuckling adventure. Campbell brings the same gorgeous, classically Zorro images to this one that he brought to the last one, the score remains crisp and full of heroism. Catherine Zeta may have gained some weight and an old guy named Douglas, and Banderas may be getting a little paunchy around the chin, but they’ve still got the stuff necessary to bring this kind of high energy, high adventure material to life. If they’d gone for a PG-13 rating and hacked a few pages out of the script the movie might have been even better, but as is it’s a good crack of the whip.