The Mask of Zorro (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #59

Justice leaves its mark.

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 138 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 17th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th December 1998
First Seen: TV, 31st August 2002 (probably)

Stars
Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Puss in Boots)
Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Remains of the Day)
Catherine Zeta-Jones (Entrapment, Chicago)

Director
Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Legend of Zorro)

Screenwriters
John Eskow (Pink Cadillac, Air America)
Ted Elliott (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Story by
Ted Elliott (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Lone Ranger)
Terry Rossio (The Legend of Zorro, National Treasure: Book of Secrets)
Randall Jahnson (The Doors, Sunset Strip)

Based on
The character of Zorro, created by Johnston McCulley.

The Story
After his brother is murdered, Alejandro Murrieta seeks revenge by becoming the protégé of Don Diego de la Vega — the man who used to be Zorro. Alejandro’s nemesis is Captain Love, righthand man to Don Rafael Montero, who 20 years ago killed de la Vega’s wife and stole his daughter — so de la Vega wants some revenge of his own.

Our Hero
A headstrong street thief, Alejandro Murrieta would surely get himself killed were it not for the intervention of Don Diego de la Vega and the training he provides — and his own charm, of course.

Our Villain
Don Rafael Montero plans to purchase California from General Santa Anna using gold secretly mined from the General’s own land. When Zorro’s actions threaten to expose the plan, he decides to destroy the mine and kill its slave workers. As if murdering de la Vega’s wife and stealing his child didn’t make him evil enough.

Best Supporting Character
Anthony Hopkins still seems an unlikely choice for the ageing former Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega, but his performance is perfectly calibrated nonetheless: wise and teasing of his young charge in equal measure. Hopkins also has the remarkable ability to absolutely own every line — reading the quotes page on IMDb, it’s impossible not to hear his voice.

Memorable Quote
“There is a saying, a very old saying: when the pupil is ready the master will appear.” — Don Diego de la Vega

Memorable Scene
Escaping from the villains, Zorro finds refuge in a nearby church, where he hides in the confessional. In comes Elena, wanting to confess her infatuation with the masked bandit. Hilarity ensues.

Technical Wizardry
The key to most good swashbucklers is the sword-fighting, and The Mask of Zorro is up to scratch. Banderas was trained by Bob Anderson, a legendary sword master — he also worked on Highlander, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and many more. Not least, he coached Errol Flynn of all people — and Anderson reckoned Banderas was the best swordsman he’d worked with since Flynn.

Making of
Producer Steven Spielberg originally considered directing, but was eventually busy with Saving Private Ryan. Apparently Tom Cruise would’ve been his Zorro. Spielberg’s contributions included putting Catherine Zeta-Jones forward to be cast, and suggesting the epilogue scene (with Alejandro and Elena’s baby) because the original stopping point (Old Zorro dying in his daughter’s arms) was too depressing. At one time Robert Rodriguez was also set to direct — he cast Banderas, and wanted Salma Hayek in the Zeta-Jones role — but he clashed with the studio over budget and, apparently, his concept of the film as violent and R-rated.

Previously on…
The Mask of Zorro was a new, standalone Zorro adventure, but the character has a long screen history — over 40 film appearances, according to Wikipedia, including five serials, plus a dozen TV series and multiple radio dramas. The first was 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, starring the original swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks. Better known nowadays is the 1940 remake starring Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone (which nearly made it on to this list).

Next time…
Seven years later, sequel The Legend of Zorro sees Zorro attempt to thwart a threat to California’s pending statehood, this time with his kid in tow. It wasn’t that good. Naturally, there’s talk of a reboot.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Costume Design)
3 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Costumes)

What the Critics Said
“a pointed riposte to those who say they don’t make ’em like that anymore. The return of the legendary swordsman is well served by a grandly mounted production in the classical style [which] favors dashing adventure, dramatic and political intrigue, well-motivated characters and romance between mightily attractive leads over fashionable cynicism, cheap gags, over-stressed contemporary relevance and sensation for sensation’s sake. […] Achieving the right tone for the picture was crucial, as it easily could have tilted either in the direction of old-fashioned stodginess or, more likely in this day and age, of inappropriately high-tech thrills and gratuitous violence. Clearly, everyone concerned, beginning with scripters John Eskow, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and GoldenEye director Martin Campbell, was at pains to endow the story with sufficient dramatic and emotional credibility, and to go beyond glibness in its humor.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety

Score: 83%

What the Public Say
“as this is a Steven Spielberg production, what The Mask of Zorro is really about is the art of filmmaking, and it shows what some imaginative people (director Martin Campbell among them) can do with a movie camera. There are some old-fashioned stunts and physical comedy that are carried off just about perfectly here. And usually, these shoot-the-works movies peter out just before the end credits, but this one has the most satisfying adventure-movie wrap-up I’ve seen in a long time.” — Movie Movie Blog Blog

Verdict

A couple of years after he revitalised the Bond franchise with GoldenEye, director Martin Campbell does the same for a whole subgenre — the swashbuckler — in this fun revival of the masked Californian vigilante. Mixing slickly choreographed action with doses of humour, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously but doesn’t tip over into farce either (traits definitely shared with the aforementioned Bond revival). The result is thoroughly entertaining, and an example of ’90s blockbuster filmmaking at its finest.

#60 will… take the red pill.

RED 2 (2013)

2015 #102
Dean Parisot | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, France & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

The “retired, extremely dangerous” agents return for more of the same.

“More of the same” is all the recommendation — or unrecommendation, or disrecommendation, or whatever the antonym of “recommendation” actually is — you really need. This isn’t a sequel for those who’ve not seen the first, because no effort is made to re-establish the world or characters. And if you disliked said forerunner, there’s no reason you’ll find this more to your taste.

If you did enjoy RED (like me), #2 isn’t as good — it’s lost too much zaniness, goes on too long — but it’s a pleasantly entertaining globetrotting action-comedy nonetheless.

3 out of 5

Chicago (2002)

2008 #96
Rob Marshall | 108 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

ChicagoI remember being distinctly unimpressed when Chicago took the Best Picture Oscar in 2003, especially as the alternatives included Gangs of New York and The Two Towers — not to mention Road to Perdition, an excellent film that was massively undervalued during award season.

In its favour are a number of memorable songs, all performed with impressive routines. On the downside, they’re all quite stagey in their choreography, though this suits the daydream-fantasy style in which they come about. In fact, the ability of film to make clear the distinction between ‘real life’ and fantasy means the film is far easier to follow than the stage version.

The story is passable enough, serving as a roadmap between the songs and offering the occasional bit of commentary/criticism on celebrity culture — it may be set in the ’20s and have been written in the ’70s, but the characters’ underhand tactics to keep their story on the front pages are as pertinent now as ever.

Five years on, Chicago isn’t as poor as expected — it manages to be consistently entertaining — but nor is it superior to the alternatives. For a current comparison, it’s only marginally better than if Mamma Mia were to trot round winning Best Picture gongs this year.

4 out of 5