The peasants are revolting. (Rim shot.) They’re in a swivet because lip-curlingly ruthless Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), apologist for the Spanish in Mexico, is about to execute some local rebels. A firing squad awaits his go-ahead. But look! Up in the sky! Who is that masked man? It’s the legendary pulp-fiction hero Zorro (Anthony Hopkins), armed with nothing more than his sword, his skill, and his highly evolved sense of personal style! The Mask of Zorro (TriStar) wastes no time establishing its old-fashioned, deep-crimson approach: Zorro thrusts and dares, frees the prisoners, confounds the jailers, bows to the crowd, then gallops off on his trusty steed.
But that’s just the prologue of this pleasant movie anachronism, an assemblage of traditional Robin Hooded scenarios (and superior swordplay) that, in the right light, is a nostalgic treat, and in shadow evokes Monty Python. In fact, The Mask of Zorro—executive-produced by Steven Spielberg—is really about that classical heroic rite of passage, the one where an older man trains a younger one. Captured after his derring-do and thrown in jail, Zorro—the street name for Don Diego de la Vega—escapes decades later and, vowing revenge on Montero, recruits a trainable ally. He finds a star pupil in Alejandro Murieta (Antonio Banderas). The onetime bandit graduates from the master’s boot camp, having learned the fine points of fighting, chivalry, conversation, and personal hygiene. “I look like a butterfly,” Zorro Jr. assesses, gussied up for a night of intelligence gathering at Montero’s mansion. The evening includes a sexy dance-floor pas de deux with Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who thinks she’s Montero’s daughter but is really old de la Vega’s abducted child. (One giveaway: She inherited her father’s flashy way with a blade.)
I wish director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) could have given The Mask of Zorro a more cohesive vision and more powerful motor, something more original (to take advantage of 1990s-style sensibilities) than the inevitability of a rematch with Montero. But I couldn’t have wished for a better floor show from a more passionate pair of Zorros. Hopkins, once again tackling the most outlandish of character roles and making the work look like fun, conveys contemplative elegance and maturity, everything one could want in a mentor; Banderas keeps the romantic-hero stuff light, especially early in his apprenticeship when he flubs with a gangliness more usually seen among baby animals in Disney animation. The fiery relationship between Alejandro and Elena, meanwhile, has an equality Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs and Lorna Cole might emulate. And while Riggs is at it, why not try subduing enemies by slashing Zs in their necks? It’s what all the best heroes are doing these days. B