Long before Batman patrolled the streets of Gotham City another masked vigilante was fighting for justice in the California desert; Zorro. Inspired by real life outlaw Joaquin Murietta, who was popularly known as ‘Mexico’s Robin Hood’, Zorro has become one of popular culture’s most enduring heroes. First debuted in a 1919 novela, the character has been featured in numerous films, television series, and novels. Despite his popularity, however, Zorro lay dormant for years after his classic adventures fell out of favor with the rise of gritty reboots laden with special effects. In 1998, however, the franchise was revitalized as The Mask of Zorro introduced the adventures of the masked avenger to a new generation.
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The story begins in 1821 California in an homage to the original films and series with aristocrat Diego de la Veg donning his famous mask just in time to rescue a group of wrongly accused peasants from execution. The story takes a dark turn, however, when Diego returns home only to be arrested by his sworn enemy, corrupt governor Don Rafael Montero. During the ensuing struggle, Diego’s wife, Esperanza, is killed and his infant daughter, Elena, is kidnapped to be raised as Don Rafael’s child. Twenty years later, an imprisoned Diego learns that Don Rafael has returned to California with Elena after exile in Spain and accordingly plots his escape. Upon escaping prison he meets hapless thief Alejandro who is seeking his own vengeance. Together, the unlikely pair resurrect the legend of Zorro and embark upon a journey that will decide the future of California.
Through its nuanced characterizations and believable script, The Mask of Zorro presents a hero for the real world. While the majority of adventure and action films today utilize the excitement and visual flair of supernatural forces and super-powers, The Mask of Zorro relates an equally entertaining tale that remains firmly grounded in the parameters of its historical setting. For example, Don Rafael’s scheme for he and the other dons to regain their former power highlights the all too real evils of greed and political corruption and carries far more weight than a standard ‘take over the world’ super villain plot. Similarly, Diego and Alejandro’s exploits are more satisfying than those shown in many modern action and adventure films, as the duo earn their success by relying upon their wits and skills rather than triumphing through some elaborate gadget or otherworldly ability. The film particularly stands out for the complexity of its two leads. While Diego begins the film as a larger than life hero, the loss of both his family and freedom leave him humbled and jaded. Similarly, although Alejandro becomes a dashing Zorro, he begins the film as a crude thief who bears a closer resemblance to a masked bandit than the legendary hero. Despite their flaws, both men remain likeable characters, even as viewers watch them morally struggle with the difficult choice between justice and vengeance. What the films lacks in CGI effects it more than makes up for in its vibrant historical setting and daring stunts as its two protagonists ride, fence, and dance their way through the treacherous world of California’s elites. For an adventure that will satisfy the mind and heart as well as dazzle the eyes look no further than the infamous ‘Z’ for Zorro.
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The film’s uniformly excellent cast brings the adventures of Zorro to rousing life in a way that will appeal to devoted fans and newcomers alike. Anthony Hopkins infuses Diego with a world weariness and guarded compassion that highlight both the idealist he once was and the cynic he has become. Antonio Banderas is an ideal foil to Hopkins’ wounded hero in his role as the impulsive Alejandro. In Banderas’ hands Alejandro’s journey from outlaw to hero is a natural evolution rather than a jarring character shift as Alejandro continues to maintain his roguishness even as he answers the call of justice. The chemistry between the two leads provides the film with its emotional core and many of its most memorable moments, as Hopkins aptly plays straight-man and mentor to Banderas’ rebellious student. Through her sharp wit and even sharper swordplay, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Elena is more than a standard love interest. Zeta-Jones infuses her role with an intelligence and nuance that ensure she holds her own in the male-dominated cast, particularly in her scenes with Banderas which spark with sensual chemistry. Stuart Wilson lends complexity and sinister charm to his role as the ruthless Don Rafael, who is motivated as much by personal loss and obsession as by greed. Matt Letscher aptly portrays the sociopathic Texas Ranger Captain Harrison Love and captures both Love’s genteel exterior and internal brutality with equal skill.
Through its combination of rousing action, engaging performances and classic storytelling, The Mask of Zorro is a worthy entry in the Zorro franchise. At once an homage to the franchise’s original tales and a fresh twist on the adventure genre, the film has something for all generations and serves as an apt reminder of what is sorely lacking in today’s youth and technology-centric cinema. Nearly one hundred years after his debut Zorro remains one of popular culture’s most thrilling and fascinating heroes; with just one viewing of The Mask of Zorro will unmask all the reasons why.
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