• U.S.

Cinema: The Mark of Excitement

3 minute read
Richard Schickel

A swish, a swoosh, the snick-snack-snick of dueling blades–the nice thing about swordplay is that it doesn’t make a lot of noise. When cold steel is their weapon of choice, men can actually exchange snappy dialogue while engaging in mortal combat. Better still, when heroism and villainy go at it mano a mano, a certain clearly identifiable humanity as well as a certain cinematic grace and fluidity is imparted to their conflicts.

This alone would be enough to recommend The Mask of Zorro–and separate it from its competitors. Imagine a summer action spectacle that saves its only explosion until the end, where it has a genuine impact. Imagine one that leaves room for grace notes of humor and gallantry and does not bury them in showers of bad language and falling debris. Imagine one where you can actually hear yourself think. And better yet, hear the actors think.

Think? Well, all right, maybe that’s too strong a term. But the action in this movie, most of which takes the form of spectacular stunt work performed by real, as opposed to digitized, people (note especially the spectacular Roman riding gag), is motivated by simple, powerful emotions of an old-fashioned and rather melodramatic nature, which the characters are not shy about expressing. We’re talking high romance, pure ideals, dashing heroism here–all the stuff that used to animate our big boyish movies.

Generous almost to a fault, this movie offers us not one but two Zorros. There’s an aging one, Don Diego (played with impeccable elegance by Anthony Hopkins), making a comeback after suffering a long imprisonment, to fight a resurgence of tyranny in old, Spanish-controlled California. In the process he recruits a young, nimbler apprentice, Alejandro (portrayed by Antonio Banderas), who’s not afraid of acting a little dumb until his mentor smartens him up, cools his ardent blood and teaches him the skills that make him worthy of wearing the black mask of the gallant outlaw.

The pair need all their wit to thwart the relentlessly scheming Don Rafael. A blackguard worthy of the two Zorros’ steel, he’s richly realized by Stuart Wilson as a sort of Darth Vader of romance, helplessly embracing its dark side. Long ago he killed Diego’s wife, with whom he was in love, and then abducted their daughter to raise as his own. Played in adulthood by the ravishingly beautiful and wonderfully spirited Catherine Zeta- Jones, she is, of course, destined to find both her true father and her true love behind one Zorro mask or another.

But not before our heroes have mercilessly tweaked, mocked, scorned and generally reduced Don Rafael to largely impotent rage. And just when he was on the brink of stealing all the gold in the state and setting himself up as ruler of an independent empire. Director Martin Campbell doesn’t quite know when to stop. At some point the number of hairbreadth assaults and escapes approaches the tiresome. But they’re all well choreographed, and since the good-natured conviction of all concerned with Zorro never flags, we are carried blithely along on their journey.

–By Richard Schickel

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