MASK OF ZORRO, THE – Blu-ray review

Disney’s Zorro (Guy Williams) is still the best–even my eight-year-old daughter thinks so–but Antonio Banderas does a fine job of capturing the tongue-in-cheek aspects of the Spanish swashbuckler. And director Martin Campbell gets the rest right.

“The Mask of Zorro” is a deliberately slick, deliberately romanticized, and deliberately sexy tongue-in-cheek action film that will remind audiences of James Bond flicks. Of course, that’s not much of a surprise, since the director who finally wound up bringing this project to fruition (after two before him didn’t work out) was none other than the director of “GoldenEye.”

Campbell shakes the Zorro legend a bit with stirring swordfights that are infused with humor or, in the most memorable one, sex. In 1999, the film won recognition for having the Best Fight in the movies at the MTV Awards, and the scene where the new Zorro (Antonio Banderas) fights his predecessor’s daughter (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is certainly one of Hollywood’s most memorable. It has the feel of a torrid Tango with Toledo steel. With kissing in-between swashes and a swordplay zip-tease that exposes a little skin here, and a lot of skin there, it’s great fun to watch. Banderas and Zeta-Jones not only have terrific chemistry, but they each play to the cameras as if they were lovers.

There’s a little “Princess Bride” in this script as well, because it turns out that like the Dread Pirate Roberts, Zorro is an identity that’s passed like a torch to a younger successor. Anthony Hopkins plays the part of the elder Don Diego de la Vega, the nobleman who masquerades as Zorro to fight on behalf of the peasants whose lives have been made miserable by their Spanish oppressors. And here’s where the Zorro legend takes a few twists and turns from the original pulp fiction. Or rather, here’s where the Zorro legend comes full circle.

Johnston McCulley introduced readers to Zorro in “The Curse of Capistrano,” a 1919 pulp fiction that featured a Robin Hood character who was based on a real California gold rush bandit named Joaquin Murrieta. Depending upon the source, Murrieta was either the Mexican Robin Hood or a ruthless bandit who, with his gang, The Five Joaquins (Botellier, Carrillo, Ocomorenia, and Valenzuela) and sidekick Three-Fingered Jack, who was really Manuel Garcia, terrorized the mining camps. The gang had been credited for stealing more than $100,000 in gold and killing 19 laborers and three lawmen before they were tracked down by a group of newly-formed California Rangers some 50 miles outside Monterey. Led by a former Texas Ranger named Capt. Love, the Rangers cut down two of the gang–Murrieta and Garcia–and brought back the head of Murrieta and the hand of Garcia to prove it. And with the Old West being the lawless carnival that it was, the remains were displayed in a jar of brandy which toured California. For a dollar, people could see what happened to the notorious bandit and his sidekick. It was the legends that sprang up about Murrieta after his death that inspired McCulley to write his Zorro tale.

The screenwriters bring Zorro and Murrieta together in a really interesting way, paying tribute as well to the 1957-59 Disney series which popularized the characters of Don Diego de la Vega, his mute servant Bernardo, and the corpulent Sergeant Garcia–who tried, but always failed to capture Zorro (Spanish for “The Fox”) with his lancers. In this film, the orphaned juvenile Murrieta brothers help de la Vega/Zorro escape, and he gives one of them a medallion. Years later, Joaquin and Alejandro (Victor Rivers and Banderas) and their sidekick, Three-Fingered Jack (L.Q. Jones) run into Capt. Love (Matt Letscher), and Joaquin loses his head. Three-Fingered Jack is presumed dead, but Alejandro escapes to nurture a thirst for revenge that is finally quenched when he meets the masked man who will teach him how to fight and take his place as Zorro. In a nod to Disney, the former Zorro poses as the servant Bernardo to his new master-apprentice, and the film follows both men’s thirst for revenge as they also try to thwart the former governor of California (Stuart Wilson) who returns with dreams of buying California.

There’s plenty of action, plenty of gorgeous scenery, and a sheen that reminds us every step of the way–like those theatrical serials of old–that we’re watching a movie with all its stylized exaggeration. Set in Mexico between 1820-40 (okay, they took some liberties with the dates as well as the characters) and filmed entirely on location, Campbell used more than 600 local artisans and skilled professionals to build 60 intricate sets from scratch, and also rehabbed an authentic but crumbling hacienda. Costume designer Graziela Mazon dressed 2000 extras in original creations modeled from items she saw in museums. And legendary British swordmaster Bob Anderson was brought onboard to teach the actors the dangerous choreographies of the swordfight. The result is good old-fashioned escapist entertainment that has a look which is an odd cross between the super-authentic and the super-hip.

Blu-ray beats the pants off the DVD, but I wouldn’t call it a showpiece disc. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is a fine one, with no artifacts visible and solid black levels, but Campbell went with an antiqued look with an orange-brown wash over some scenes, and other outdoor scenes have an earthtone palette. As a result, it doesn’t have that slick look that some of the best Blu-rays have. To really enjoy the Hi-Def we need the grand costumes and brightly lit interiors, all of which show off Banderas’ and Zeta-Jones’ assets. There’s a slight-but-welcome layer of film grain–welcome, because it too “ages” the film–and distinct edges. But despite a nice amount of detail, “The Mask of Zorro” really doesn’t pop out at you with 3-dimensionality. It’s presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.

Sony once again went with a DTS-HD MA 5.1, this time in English, French, or Portuguese. So why would a film that celebrates a Spanish legend and features the first Hispanic to play Zorro relegate Spanish-speakers to a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that’s not as dynamic? Go figure. But the DTS-HD MA is a lively audio that’s a pleasure to listen to. Every clash of sword and special effect fill the room, pushing way past the source. Effects speakers really get a workout in this action film, and the bass has enough subtle rumble to add a nice texture. High notes are bright, dialogue is clear and well balanced against the score and effects, and the channels seem to handle every whisper with the same crisp intensity of those whip-cracks. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

The bonus features are a repeat of the 2005 DVD release, with only movieIQ trivia track (for Profile 2.0 Internet-connected players) added.

Campbell’s commentary is better than average, but the real worthwhile bonus feature is the “Unmasking Zorro” documentary, a 44-minute journey that begins in 1919 when the character was created by a “hack” writer, progresses through various movie incarnations, and then settles into a more familiar making-of feature that’s broken up into recognizable segments. Some studios would have made mini-features out of these, but I personally like it when they’re all strung together to make one large one. There’s less click-on nonsense, and frankly there are some sections (like the music?) that people might skip over if they had the choice, but the segments are really worthwhile. We get plenty of revelations here too, ranging from Campbell’s admission that this was more challenging to film than “GoldenEye” to Zeta Jones’ confession that she rode a horse for the first time in pre-production. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes shots of the swordfighting choreography, explosion-rigging, costume and set design (the costume designer MADE many of the outfits and matching jewelry), horse wrangling, and all aspects of filmmaking. Included in this making-of feature is a long original (but discarded) ending.

There’s a teaser-style mini-feature on the new “Legend of Zorro,” with a complete scene as well in which Zeta-Jones takes on three men in a swordfight, and then is joined by her husband, and the pair carve up the opposition in a beautifully choreographed fight scene–which made more sense on the DVD because we had yet to see “Legend.”

Aside from a music video by Marc Anthony and Tina Arena, that’s it for the bonus features. Nothing new but the trivia track that offers info on cast, music, etc., while you watch the movie. Personally, I prefer the “Unmasking Zorro” documentary.

Bottom Line:
As someone who grew up wearing coonskin caps and carving Zs into furniture, I confess that I approached “The Mask of Zorro” with a prejudice. To me, Guy Williams was Zorro, the same way that Sean Connery would always be James Bond and everybody else would be just putting on the tux and strapping on the shoulder holster. But Banderas has so much fun in the role, as does Zeta-Jones in hers, that it’s hard not to like them. It’s self-consciously stylized and unapologetically escapist, but a fun film as a result. And seeing it again in Blu-ray makes me appreciate it all the more. This is the best movie version of Zorro to date, and High-Definition makes it that much more exciting. It’s formulaic, but lots of fun.