Film Reviews:

The Mask of Zorro

(Martin Campbell, US, 1998)

On paper, Martin (Goldeneye) Campbell's The Mask of Zorro looks like another in an alarmingly long list of uninspired Hollywood remakes. With each of those rehashes becoming less entertaining and more predictable than the last, The Mask of Zorro looked like a dud waiting to happen. But, surpassing all possible expectations, this outing for the masked avenger is an absolute corker. With Steven Spielberg sharing the producer credit, it effortlessly oozes quality out of every minutes of screen time, and boasts that most endangered of species in Hollywood action/adventure movies - a literate plot.

Twenty years have passed since Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) successfully fought Spanish oppression in Alta California at the end of the 19th Century under the guise of the romantic folk hero Zorro. Imprisoned for two decades, he must find a successor to the famous mask, someone who can stop Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) who is making plans to purchase California from Mexico's president. Montero is the powerful Spanish former governor of Alta California who cost de la Vega his freedom, his wife and his daughter (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), a bandit with a troubled past, is transformed by de la Vega into the new Zorro. Trained, armed, suited and with a black stallion completing the legendary image of the people's hero, Murrieta as Zorro picks up the fight against evil oppressors and battles with Montero and his powerful allies.

This fight between good and evil provides a framework for a more subtle and satisfying screenplay that weaves together romance, adventure, honour, revenge, tragedy and occasionally comedy. Exploiting an already marvellous script is perfect casting. Hopkins looks just the part as the pony-tailed, cigar-smoking retiree - even if his accent still refuses to budge an inch from his native Wales, and his stunt double is wee bit too obvious in the 15-minute prologue. Banderas delivers a winning performance, bitter and frustrated one moment, charming and cocky the next. His dark, handsome looks are precisely what the Zorro role demands. Catherine Zeta-Jones sparkles in her role as the lost daughter of the original Zorro, and delivers more than just a token love interest; her character's strong individuality managing to avoid stepping out of period and becoming too much of a proto-feminist. The sexual chemistry between Banderas and Zeta-Jones simply leaps off the screen and only emphasises what a dreadful miss-match Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman were as Steed and Mrs Peel in another recent remake - The Avengers. However, the plaudits for best acting must go to Stuart Wilson whose menacing Montero is a text book example of how to deftly underplay what could so easily have been an OTT, moustache-twiddling, boo-hiss baddie.

Guiding all of this is British director Martin Campbell. His work on The Mask of Zorro makes the patchy Goldeneye look laboured in comparison. Here, he exudes a mastery over his art as the engrossing story moves from high adventure to heart-wrenching tragedy, without any jarring transitions and succeeds on every level. The limited humour, when it does appear, is kept brief and used as a tension release and is never allowed to get out-of-hand as it did in the similarly styled Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The score by James Horner is glorious. Eschewing the catchy hook lines of 'theme tunes' of some of his peers, Horner has crafted a subtle yet sweeping suite that harks back to the 1940s. Adding further depth and support to the visuals, the music echoes the key themes of adventure, romance and tragedy. Don't be put off by the two-and-a-quarter-hour running time. Believe me, there's no padding here, and you'll enjoy evry minute. It has been a long, long time since Hollywood produced such an accomplished romantic adventure and that's why it is easy to say that The Mask of Zorro is the best adventure movie since Raiders of the Lost Ark. I can't wait to see it again.

Rob Dyer