The Mask of Zorro was a real breath of fresh air in the stale, stale year of 1998. That was the year of dueling asteroid films and Godzilla; it seemed like the Hollywood action film was about to go the way of the musical. But Zorro was lithe where the rest lumbered, and it presented to us a vision of action-adventure as it used to be – stunts and charisma instead of CGI and pyrotechnics.
At the time I was excited to see Zorro spun off into a new franchise. And now, seven years later, I get my sequel. Too bad director Martin Campbell has lost any sight of what made the first film work, and he presents us with a tired, silly film that feels less like a throwback to pulp and serials than a return to the ennui of 80s action movies.
It’s been ten years since Don Alejandro took over as Zorro. He and Elena have had a son, Joaquin, and he has promised her again and again that as soon as California joins the United States he will retire from his life as the masked crimefighter. Of course he can’t, and it seems like his unwillingness to put Zorro away leads to Elena divorcing him. But is that the whole story? And why does she take up with the obviously sinister Frenchman Armand? And is this film really two hours long?
There’s not a plot point or storyline in The Legend of Zorro that isn’t completely hackneyed and clichéd. That wouldn’t be so bad if the film wasn’t also an exercise in relentless silliness – Zorro’s horse drinks wine, smokes a pipe AND has an eye-bugging reaction to oncoming danger in this film. Any one of those alone would have been too much.
Oddly, Zorro’s rambunctious son is among the least irritating aspects of the film. Perhaps it’s because the first movie set Zorro up as a generational saga, so seeing the kid excel in gymnastics and swordplay – even in completely lame scenes that have absolutely no bearing on the rest of the narrative – feels kind of natural. The actor who plays young Joaquin helps – he doesn’t suffer from overt cutesiness. I also found myself fascinated in who did his stunts. Did he do his own work? Are there child stunt actors? Or did they hire amazingly acrobatic midgets?
The actual plot of the film is staggeringly stupid. So stupid, in fact, that the script mainly ignores it, backgrounding the reasoning for the evil Frenchman’s machinations. Which is just as well, since it’s a DaVinci Code rip-off. What is fascinating, though, is how The Legend of Zorro may be the first compassionate conservative movie (but by no means the first conservative movie. Action films haven’t needed John Milius to be deeply conservative in nature for decades).
The film opens with the vote on California joining the Union. Surely this is the first action film to place such importance on the ballot, and the whole people’s referendum thing feels quite a bit like the Total Recall that kicked Gray Davis out of office a few years back. Bad guys want to hijack the election – we think at first that it’s because they hate Mexicans (the film’s pro-Mexican stance places it firmly with George W. Bush. In fact the desire of these Californians to join the Union reminds me of Bush’s plan to semi-naturalize our current crop of illegals), but we later find out that the nastily scarred Nick Chinlund is actually in cahoots with France and other European powers who feel that the United States is getting too big for its britches.
Oh those nasty French. I had a little bit of a hard time figuring out how Chinlund’s villain – a religious man – fit into a conservative framework until I realized that he’s a false holy man. He’s the movie’s version of a Muslim. Anyway, the dastardly Europeans are in cahoots with the burgeoning Confederacy and want to supply them with – get this – weapons of mass destruction (in this time frame, nitroglycerine), which the Southerners will use to mount a terrorist attack on Washington DC.
Picking out the possibly phantom political pieces was one of the few joys I found in The Legend of Zorro. Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones both seem to be going through the paces (although Banderas often looks actually unwell, a sure symptom that he has read ahead in the script), and their bantering was reduced to a level that the under seven set could deal with. That, I am assuming, is The Legend of Zorro’s real target audience. Which is a pity, because even at that age the kids should be able to see through all the shitty CGI that has replaced good stuntwork here. And they’ll certain wonder why the hell Zorro has such a hard time defeating the bad guy at the end, since he seems like a complete fop, and we’ve seen Zorro dispatch much tougher dudes at will (for some reason the film gives Elena the job of taking out the villain’s Oddjob-like henchman).
There’s a level of corniness inherent in a movie about a swordsman who never stabs or slashes anybody. You have to accept that the guy is going to use his sword only to parry and get people close enough to clobber them with the hilt. But The Legend of Zorro passes corny right by and goes for silly, and stupid, and boring.