It's self-consciously stylized and unapologetically escapist, but a fun film as a result.

James Plath's picture

Here we go again. Seven years after the original entertained audiences, a new DVD of "The Mask of Zorro" is being re-issued to coincide with the forthcoming release of the sequel, "The Legend of Zorro." And from a preview clip which shows Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas cutting up in grand swashbuckler style, I'm guessing that quite a few people who buy this DVD are going to use the coupon inside to save seven bucks off the cost of a movie ticket to see the sequel.

As usual, those who already own "The Mask of Zorro" on DVD have a decision to make. Though the box proclaims that the new version is mastered in High Definition, to my eye the picture quality appears to be very close to the initial release, and the aspect ratio (2.35:1 anamorphic) is identical. The 2-channel English soundtrack option was dropped for the new version, while French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles were added. That's a relatively small change. A bigger difference is in the extras, and while this new disc is far from being "loaded," the bonus features are better than on the original release. A teaser-length making-of feature has been replaced by a more substantial and fact-filled longer behind-the-scenes extra, and a full-length director's commentary has been added.

But hey, it's all about the movie, and this one 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 Martin Campbell ("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 (Banderas) fights his predecessor's daughter (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.

Video: The picture quality is very good but not as sharp as some of the High Definition discs I've seen. Especially under the harsh Mexican sun we can see an ever-so-slight touch of grain, but the colors—especially in the interior shots—are vibrant. As I said, the picture is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.

Audio: There's no longer an English Dolby Digital 2.0 option, but with a 5.1 English soundtrack that has brings every metallic clink of swords to life, why would you want 2.0? The sound quality is excellent, with natural distribution of ambient noises and great balance among the voices, music, and Foley effects.

Extras: Campbell's commentary is better than average, and the new making-of feature is at least twice as good as the short feature on the first release. That mini-feature was mostly a promo, with the talking heads telling us what the film is about. The new feature gets more into the facts and anecdotes behind the filming, with more behind-the-scenes footage and more substantial information. There's more focus on the design of the film in the new feature than the previous one, which showcased mostly the actors.

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. They said they wanted to make the sequel better, and while it's hard to tell from a single clip and making-of feature, "The Legend of Zorro" at least looks to be as good as the original.

The original DVD release had a photo gallery and trailer. This new release has talent files for the four principle actors, costume designs from Graziela Mazon, a music video, and promo materials. So the extras package is considerably improved.

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.


Film Value