The Mask of Zorro was one of the best surprises of 1997 and one of the best swashbucklers of its decade. Thrilling, heartbreaking, witty, romantic, and largely family-friendly, it was at once true to the spirit of the classic period actioners and also thoroughly of its own time.
Eight years later, The Legend of Zorro, rated PG, is ostensibly even more family-friendly than the PG‑13 original. Alas, that’s just about the only category in which this belated sequel outdoes its classy predecessor. Director Martin Campbell is back, along with returning stars Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones — though Anthony Hopkins as the original Zorro is sorely missed, along with the thrills, wit, and romance. After the high standard set by the original, The Legend of Zorro ranks among this year’s biggest disappointments.
Ratings notwithstanding, is The Legend of Zorro really even more family-friendly than The Mask of Zorro? Certainly the filmmakers are courting family audiences in a new way this time around. If a horse burps, swigs wine, puffs on a pipe, and even gets CGI-enhanced reaction shots in which his eyes widen at impending danger, it must be a family film.
The swordplay is even less deadly this time around, though characters are killed in other ways, notably involving nitroglycerin explosions. And certainly there’s nothing like the original’s gross-out scene with a decapitated head in a jar of water (though one bad guy watches wide-eyed as a drop of “nitro” falls toward his face; the actual explosion is mercifully offscreen).
Yet which of the four credited writers thought that family audiences — or anyone else — wanted to see the ten-year marriage of Zorro II (Banderas) and Mrs. Zorro (Zeta-Jones) on the rocks? Who thought we wanted to see Alejandro served with divorce papers just as he was about to go home and beg his wife’s forgiveness? Was it meant to make matters better or worse that Elena divorced her husband only partly because she was angry at him, but also — unbeknownst to him — partly as a ruse enabling her to take up with an old flame from Spain (Rufus Sewell) in order to spy on him and discover his nefarious plans for California?
Didn’t anyone have misgivings about the soirée scene in which a jealous Alejandro furiously chugs glass after glass of wine, then drunkenly brawls with Elena on the dance floor in a pathetic, cringe-inducing echo of the first film’s sultry tango scene? Didn’t anyone realize that we want the hero of a Zorro movie to be above this kind of loutish behavior?
It was different in The Mask of Zorro, where Alejandro’s rough edges were offset by the grace and class of Hopkins’s Diego de la Vega. Alejandro may have started out as a drunken lout, but Mask didn’t ask us to accept him as a satisfactory Zorro until he had progressed a long way from there. Whether it’s plausible that Alejandro might slide back into his loutish behavior is beside the point — the point is that it’s no fun.
The story isn’t much fun either. There’s some business about a sinister secret society called the Knights of Aragon, sort of a cross between the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, wanting to capitalize on the coming civil war by dividing America and conquering the world. Alejandro worries that his son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), who is clearly born to buckle swashes but for some reason doesn’t know that his father is Zorro, is a spoiled brat.
What are Zorro and Mrs. Zorro fighting about in the first place? In their first scene together, Elena accuses Alejandro of caring more about being Zorro than about his own family, and not even knowing his own son. Are you tired yet?
You may be thinking about how The Incredibles, one of the best family films in years, covered similar territory. But Brad Bird’s CGI heroes quarreled with far more humanity, depth, affection and nuance than Campbell’s live-action cartoon characters. Elastigirl would never have threatened Mr. Incredible that if he walked out that door, he wasn’t sleeping there tonight. And if for some reason she had gotten that mad at him, Mr. Incredible would never have walked out the door.
Although Alejandro and Elena each seem to think that the other is at least partly at fault, the filmmakers, as far as I can tell, seem basically to agree with Elena. Only Alejandro wrestles with self-doubt and weakness. Only he is rebuked by the priest, who tells him not to bother coming to confession until he goes back to Elena (fair enough, but why doesn’t Elena get similar comeuppance?). Only Alejandro is repeatedly humbled, from to the drunken brawl at the soirée culminating in Elena slapping his face, to a crucial scene in which, held at knifepoint and forcibly stripped of his mask in front of his enemies and family, Alejandro solemnly tells Elena on his knees that “Family is my life.”
Yet by the end, without any evident change of heart on her part, Elena is suddenly much more accepting of Alejandro’s masked alter ego. “It’s who we are,” she smiles, seeing him off to save the world with her blessing. Oh. Too bad she didn’t see it that way at the start of the movie; it would have saved a lot of trouble. Or is the idea that things are somehow different now because Alejandro finally has his priorities straight? What, specifically, is going to be different from now on? It’s almost as if Alejandro doesn’t really have to change, as long as he admits he was wrong.
What about Zorro’s positive religious milieu? Here The Legend of Zorro is a mixed bag. In general the Church is positively represented, with one priest in particular supporting the heroes against the villains to the point of heroism. There’s also a scene in which a broken Zorro prays in a church before a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
Another less sympathetic priest is the butt of some silly Home Alone–style slapstick in a schoolhouse scene in which young Joaquin nobly humiliates the unfair priest–teacher to the cheers of his classmates. (The audience is meant to cheer too; that Alejandro is then on hand to scold his son is merely window dressing.)
The really dissonant religious element, though, is a nasty, racist villain (Nick Chinlund) with a cross-shaped scar carved in one cheek, who sneers constantly about “doing the Lord’s work.” (By the way, in the end Alejandro and Elena are remarried by a priest, which makes no sacramental sense, since in the eyes of the Church they were married the whole time.)
What about action? Here at least Legend manages to entertain, if not thrill. The Mask of Zorro was thrilling because the action, while exaggerated, was more or less within the realm of what could really be done, not necessarily by a real masked vigilante in actual combat situations, but at least by skilled stand-ins in front of cameras in carefully rehearsed stunts. Legend, though, goes way beyond that, kicking up its hero past Batman-level acrobatics to near Spider‑Man level super-heroics. The film’s big set pieces play like a parody of a Zorro movie, though on that cartoony level they’re enjoyable enough.
Other than the action, the one thing that keeps the film halfway watchable is Banderas and Zeta-Jones, who still have charisma and chemistry to spare. Yet somehow The Legend of Zorro feels less like a sequel to The Mask of Zorro than another lame Spy Kids sequel. (Is Banderas’s involvement a coincidence, or did he have some creative input?)
More precisely, it’s a “funny family action film” in the Fantastic Four mold — that is, a movie whose key qualification as kid entertainment is that it isn’t good enough for grown‑ups. Too bad. Our kids deserve better. For that matter, so do we.
Thrilling, heartbreaking, witty, romantic, and largely family-friendly, The Mask of Zorro is possibly the best swashbuckler of its decade, a film at once true to the spirit of the classic period actioners and also thoroughly of its own time.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.