Alejandro Murrieta/ The Mask of Zorro” stands as a pointed riposte to those who say they don’t make ’em like that anymore. The return of the legendary swordsman is well served by a grandly mounted production in the classical style. Somewhat overlong pic lacks the snap and concision that would have put it over the top as a bang-up entertainment, but it’s closer in spirit to a vintage Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power swashbuckler than anything that’s come out of Hollywood in quite some time. Therein lies the commercial question mark: Audiences will almost certainly be well satisfied, and pic should appeal to women far more than does the usual action fare, but it remains to be seen if younger viewers’ attentions spans will be strained by the somewhat deliberate pace. Domestic B.O. will likely fall in the very strong rather than blockbuster league, with even better results looming offshore.
Character of the mysterious Robin Hood/Scarlet Pimpernel figure who fights aristocratic oppressors in Old California was a household name from the time of his creation by police reporter and pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley in 1919, and the appearance the next year of the silent film “The Mark of Zorro,” with Douglas Fairbanks Sr., through the late ’50s, when Guy Williams starred in the enormously popular Disney TV series. Zorro’s star has waned since that time, but Antonio Banderas should go a long way toward changing that.
Pic favors dashing adventure, dramatic and political intrigue, well-motivated characters and romance between mightily attractive leads over fashionable cynicism, cheap gags, over-stressed contemporary relevance and sensation for sensation’s sake. After an intro that has the black-caped, masked and sombreroed Zorro stride into frame a la James Bond and etch his signature “Z” onto the screen with his sword, 18-minute prologue deftly establishes the reasons for the character’s heroic stature and sets in motion the dramatic gears that will power the remainder of the action.
It’s 1821, and the rebellion that Santa Ana is leading against colonial Spanish rule in Mexico has spread north to Alta California. Helped at a crucial moment by twin boys, Zorro spectacularly rescues three peasants about to be executed by the outgoing Spanish governor, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson).
Zorro, it turns out, is the aristocratic Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins). With the battle against Spain now won, Don Diego resolves to hang up his mask and devote himself to his wife, Esperanza, and baby daughter, Elena. But Montero, not about to leave without exacting revenge against the man who has caused him so much trouble, invades Don Diego’s hacienda, causes Esperanza to be killed, kidnaps Elena and throws Don Diego into a dungeon to ponder what he has lost.
Twenty years later, Montero is back with a devious scheme to buy the California territory from Santa Ana with gold he is illicitly mining on Mexican land. Now old, gray and vengeance-minded, Don Diego is on the point of assassinating Montero when he spots Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), now a ravishingly beautiful woman who has been raised believing that Montero is her father.
Elena’s presence complicates Don Diego’s plans for how to deal with Montero, and in due course he recruits an outlaw, Alejandro Murrieta (Banderas), who happens to be the survivor among the two brothers who helped him years ago, and teaches him everything he knows. Eventually shaping up and acquiring the requisite fighting skill and flair, Alejandro makes his debut as the reincarnation of Zorro 45 minutes into the picture, and shortly worms his way into Montero’s inner circle posing as a wealthy don sympathetic to his treacherous plan of establishing an independent Republic of California. In the process, of course, the spirited Alejandro strikes high-flying sparks with Elena.
With the ambitions of the characters so resolutely set at cross purposes, there is plenty of dramatic conflict to carry the story through to the end, which involves parallel, score-settling sword fights between longstanding enemies Don Diego and Montero, and between Alejandro and a blond American officer (Matt Letscher) who has bedeviled Zorro all along the way. Extensive scaffolding at the gold-mine site gives the athletic bladesmen plenty of beams, ramps, ropes, ladders and platforms on which to cavort during their fateful duels.
Achieving the right tone for the picture was crucial, as it easily could have tilted either in the direction of old-fashioned stodginess or, more likely in this day and age, of inappropriately high-tech thrills and gratuitous violence. Clearly, everyone concerned, beginning with scripters John Eskow, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and “GoldenEye” director Martin Campbell, was at pains to endow the story with sufficient dramatic and emotional credibility, and to go beyond glibness in its humor.
Action is played for some laughs at Zorro’s expense, like when he thinks he knows it all but truly has lots to learn, but this works effectively in warming the audience quickly to the character. By the same token, villainy is pronounced but not taken to mustache-twirling extremes. And although Campbell’s direction maintains a sharp focus on what is important in every scene, some of the more plot-oriented, dialogue-heavy scenes drag a bit, and there is no reason the film should have run more than two hours.
Thesping by all the principals is on the money. Darkly handsome, self-confident, physically agile and sensitive with his lady love, Banderas is everything one could want as Zorro. As his predecessor, Hopkins is commanding and deliciously imperious with his protege, yet visibly vulnerable when it comes to his daughter, to whom he must eventually break the news of her heritage. Zeta-Jones is bewitchingly lovely as the center of everyone’s attention, and she throws herself into the often physical demands of her role with impressive grace. Wilson bestows the dastardly Montero with resolute will and seriousness of purpose.
The beauty brought to the film by the leading players is significantly enhanced by the physical production, which is gorgeous. Mexican locations are alternately stark and lustrous but invariably drenched in rich colors, an effect accentuated by Cecilia Montiel’s lush, detailed production design, Graciela Mazon’s bold, character-defining costumes and Phil Meheux’s outstanding cinematography, which brings out the best in the settings as well as in the movie-star glamour of the actors. Occasionally echoing strains of Miklos Rozsa’s great score for “El Cid,” James Horner’s music effectively magnifies the drama, albeit a tad too incessantly. Sword fighting and stunt work has a dimension of excitement and intensity notably above the norm.