First it was titled "Zorro Unmasked," then "The Mask of Zorro 2," "Zorro 2," and "The Return of Zorro," before the powers-that-be finally settled on "The Legend of Zorro." And the original screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossario, who collaborated on "The Mask of Zorro," "Pirates of the Caribbean," and "Shrek," was replaced by one from "Alias" writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtz. It's as if the director or producers weren't sure what they wanted. And unfortunately, it shows.
There are times when the sequel has the joyful swashbuckling panache of the original, which was first cinematic reincarnation of El Zorro we saw since Guy Williams carved up those Disney TV scripts with equal measures of stylish action and humor. But there are also moments when the humor is broad and keester-related. With a mini-Zorro secretly aping his father's antics, it starts to feel like a time-travel version of "Spy Kids" pitched more at families this time around, squeaking by with a PG rating compared to the original's PG-13. And when Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) orders Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) out of the house because he spends too much time playing Zorro and later has him served with divorce papers, leaving Alejandro to feel sorry for himself and get embarrassingly drunk in the presence of his ex-wife's new suitor, we can't help but think this isn't the stuff of legend—it's an ordinary domestic squabble. The flipside of that is that sometimes things also get a bit precious.
The one constant is ACTION, with director Martin Campbell admitting on one of the extras that while "The Legend of Zorro" doesn't have the emotional content of the first movie, it's still "a helluva romp." He's right. And maybe—we can only speculate, since the answer isn't provided in the commentary—a little bit of the Bond formula crept in. Campbell directed "GoldenEye," and this outing with Zorro has a much more convoluted and "Wild, Wild West"-Bond-like conspiratorial plot than the first film, which kept it pretty simple. In "The Mask of Zorro," you may recall, Anthony Hopkins taught Banderas to take over for him, with both men having a dual motivation—revenge on those who killed a loved one, and the heroic desire to fight the oppressors on behalf of the people. It was rich vs. poor, the haves vs. the have-nots.
In "The Legend of Zorro," the year is 1850 and Californians are voting on statehood. Enter a brimstone-spouting baddie (Nick Chinlund as Jacob McGivens) who turns up with a gang, steals the ballot box and generally terrorizes peasants everywhere, then throw in sideplots involving two Pinkerton agents who blackmail Elena into getting close to a new aristocrat in town (Rufus Sewell as Aemand), a son (Adrian Alonso) who seems out of control, and a priest who functions as Alejandro's Bernardo, and you've got a plot that stretches our ability to comprehend, rather than our ability to feel. While there was still potential for a dual motivation, Zorro's unmasking and descent into ineffectual ordinariness (reminiscent of Superman's in that sequel) is so pathetic that the action easily dominates.
For all that narrative convolution, there are still more easy fixes in the sequel than we saw in the original. One ballot box stolen, recovered and presented to the Governor is celebrated as a chance at statehood saved? Come on, people. This was one village. If there was a conspiracy to defraud the election, certainly it would have been territory-wide. That's but one example of a script that expects viewers to not ask too many questions and just accept these tenuous plot threads as a means of connecting the action sequences—which are impressive. In the extras we learn that it's all real stunt work, and we watch stunt doubles swordfighting on a fast-moving train without wires, because if they fell the wires could swing them under the big iron wheels.
Despite the dangers, there was only one injury (a smashed ankle), but there were plenty of opportunities. Horses and wagons crash through walls, Elena and Zorro fight two-against-many in a carefully choreographed fencing scene, and there are explosions and fires. But for all the family-feeling Zorro Lite we get at times, there are also moments which are NOT family-friendly—as when little Joaquin sees Zorro unmasked and realizes it's his father with a Bowie knife that's about to slice through his jugular vein. That's some pretty traumatic stuff, and a 180 from bad guys getting a body full of cactus prickers, Wile E. Coyote style. The performances are fine—you couldn't expect more from the stars—but there are these inconsistencies, and the final shooting script doesn't give them as much to work with as "The Mask of Zorro."
Video:The picture, mastered in High Definition, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, is excellent. No complaints.
Audio: The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack has understandably more pop than the French 2.0 version, but I suspect that French-speakers would prefer to watch in the original language with subtitles anyway. Again, no complaints.
Extras: There are short features on Stunts, Playing with Trains, Armand's Party, and Visual Effects, all having to do with the problems of action and big production challenges with plenty of footage showing how those challenges were met. All four features are so good that you wish they were longer. It's particularly interesting to catch a glimpse inside the make-up tent, through which 480 people passed each day to have their hair and make-up doctored by some 50 artists.
Four deleted scenes are provided, with or without commentary, including a scene set in Chinatown that Campbell said was "agony to lose," with the others written off as being "too big of a scene with too little information." One interesting remark he makes is that "when you come to the editing process, the film's the thing, not the script."
In a full-length commentary with director of photography Phil Meheux, Campbell tells how they considered bringing Hopkins back as a kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi spirit, but (thankfully) ruled that out. There's talk of a gag reel on the commentary which isn't included in the extras (too bad), but mostly Campbell is self-deprecatory in his remarks ("Instead of just killing the hero, as they should do, it's like Bond," or "Why Zorro always has to flip . . .?"), while Meheux predictably concentrates on the film's visual style—which is substantial.
Bottom Line: "The Legend of Zorro" has style to spare. Is it as good as the first Zorro outing from Campbell? No. But it's still entertaining if you can accept this film on its own terms—as an action flick that wants to do nothing more than impress viewers with stunt after incredible stunt. It's as Campbell says—a helluva ride in the Indiana Jones cliffhanger tradition. But you do have to suspend logic, ignore anachronisms (like the boy saying, "You wanna piece of me?" or playing "I spy" with his mom), and settle for characters who take a backseat to action in order to enjoy the ride.