Bigger, louder and considerably less charming than its predecessor, long-deferred sequel “The Legend of Zorro” gets by mostly on dazzling stunt work and the pleasure of seeing its dashing and glamorous leads back in cape and gown. Coming seven years after “The Mask of Zorro,” which generated $251 million worldwide, pic also evokes unflattering memories of the bloated bigscreen “The Wild Wild West,” and by introducing a kid into the swashbuckling at times risks devolving into outright silliness. Still, there are enough crowd-pleasing moments amid the frenetic action — coupled with goodwill toward the 1998 adventure — to carve out plenty of dollar signs internationally.
Picking up in 1850, the people of California are “poor and desperate,” hoping that a charismatic action hero can help rescue them. In short, nothing much has changed.
Eager to become the 31st U.S. state through one of those special elections for which Californians are renowned, Don Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Banderas) leaps into battle as the masked hero Zorro to thwart an attempt to steal the ballots, in the movie’s first and best sequence.
Roughly a decade has passed since the original, and Alejandro’s dual life is taking a toll on his marriage to Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), as well as his relationship with young son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), who worships Zorro without knowing dad’s secret identity. After Alejandro is asked to choose between his responsibilities to the people and his family, the couple abruptly splits — a rather convoluted attempt to break them apart, then create obstacles for them to overcome to get back together.
A disconcerting three months pass before Alejandro discovers Elena is being wooed by a suave European count, Armand (Rufus Sewell). Of course, Armand is actually behind a nefarious, anachronistic plot to block statehood, as his henchmen, led by the wooden-toothed McGivens (Nick Chinlund), terrorize the countryside and steal the land.
What comes next provides all the De la Vegas the chance to strut their stuff, showing how a family that slays together, stays together.
Director Martin Campbell is back in the saddle again, but the firm hand he exhibited on the first go-round is shakier here, as the opening hour flits all over and hits some curiously flat patches. Only in the second half does the movie settle in a bit and clarify what all the shooting is about, as the pacing improves leading to an extended climactic sequence aboard a train that, perhaps inevitably, drags on a few miles too long.
A quartet of writers contributed to the script, and it certainly has the feel of work by committee. And while there are again welcome moments of humor, some are pitched so broadly it’s easy to wonder if this is supposed to be a sequel to “Zorro” or “Blazing Saddles.”
Fortunately, there are saving graces within the mayhem, beginning with the chemistry between Banderas and Zeta-Jones, although, not surprisingly, it worked better when they were courting, not a squabbling married couple. Still, the years have been kind to both, and they balance the uneven mood switches from comedy to drama about as well as possible.
The same can’t be said for the rest of the cast, as young Alonso wrestles with unfortunately precocious dialogue and bounces around like a pint-sized version of his pop. Similarly, Sewell plays Armand as something of a fop with a peculiar accent, just as Chinlund’s sneering villain is a little too cartoonish to be completely menacing.
At its best, pic displays flourishes of kinetic energy, with Zorro leaping, springing and flipping from one peril to the next — a kind of Nijinsky in black. (For some reason, though, that gag in “The Incredibles” regarding the dangers associated with capes kept coming to mind.)
Shot in Mexico, it’s also a handsome recreation of the Old West, from the impeccable costumes to lavish haciendas. James Horner’s score, by contrast, often sounds too florid, even by his standards, except for the moment when Zorro rides into the sunset, probably not for the last time. In fact, don’t be surprised if the itch arises this time in less than seven years.