Saturday, June 20, 2015

Zaki's Original Review: The Mask of Zorro

First written: July 18, 1998

Put simply, The Mask of Zorro is the reason movies are made. It's two hours of pure wall-to-wall cinematic perfection. In many ways it marks a return to a bygone age of cinema, bringing to mind the swashbuckling movie heroics of Errol Flynn, and of course Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power. The Zorro character is easily one of the most recognizable figures of pop culture, and to see the subject elevated to the level of myth from its humble beginnings as pulp literature is a wondrous achievement indeed.

Far more than another rote adventure featuring the legendary "Fox," The Mask of Zorro is in fact a "passing of the torch" fable, with the mantle passed from original Zorro Anthony Hopkins to his successor Antonio Banderas. Just in the film's first fifteen minutes, the hero fights off hordes of armed guards with only his sword and his acrobatic skill, frees innocent prisoners, and leaves the evil Governor Montero (Stuart Wilson) with a "Z" carved in his neck, as a keepsake. What happens next sets up the story for the rest of the film. Montero, after learning Zorro's alter ego is that of Don Diego de la Vega, a wealthy caballero, arrives to arrest him.

In the ensuing battle de la Vega is captured, his wife is killed, his house burnt down, and his infant daughter stolen by the governor. Director Martin Campbell (No Escape, GoldenEye) adopts a new style with this film, eschewing the hyper-kinetic cuts and whirls that characterized his previous high tech efforts, in favor of a dynamic filming stale that does wonders to amplify Zorro's numerous instances of derring-do. The numerous sword fights are some of the best ever captured on film, fast paced and frenetic without ever once becoming anarchic.

It would seem that director campbell borrowed a page from executive producer Steven Spielberg, in presenting the movie as a wide-open action epic of a kind not seen in too long, rather than making concessions for a "90's" audience. Much of the film's success lies in the chemistry between Hopkins, the aging hero twenty years later, and Banderas as Alejandro Murieta (fictional brother of the real-life bandido Joaquin Murieta). Some of the best scenes are those depicting not Zorro in a life-or-death sword fight, but rather Hopkins imparting Banderas with another bit of wisdom. It is clear that the moviemakers brought to the proceedings a genuine love and respect for not only who the character is, but what he represents.

Hopkins, always wonderful, so completely assumes the role of Diego it becomes difficult to remember previous Zorros such as Guy Williams and Duncan Regehr. Banderas, the man who would be Zorro, turns in one of his best performances to date, equal parts heroic, humorous, and romantic -- the key components for any good Zorro. Helping to hold the proceedings together is the score by Oscar winner James Horner (he of Titanic fame), and it too harkens back to the epic music of Miklós Rózsa. The music only adds to the overall experience, giving us the type of movie that comes along all too rarely. The Mask of Zorro is one of those rare instances where everything just falls into place, and one of the best films of the year. ***** (out of five)

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