I’m beginning to miss good old-fashioned action/adventure movies that rely less on CG effects and more on telling a good story, an involving romance, and containing action scenes where real people perform real stunts. The Mask of Zorro marked the trail end of an era where audiences began to see less and less of these types of action movies. Today, rare is the action or adventure film that does not contain hundreds of CG shots. We are even reaching a point where not only are environments wholly CG, but so are characters.

The Mask of Zorro is based on a fictional character (duh!) created in 1919 by pulp writer Johnston McCulley. The original Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) is a nobleman who lived in the Spanish colonial era of California. He is a black-clad masked vigilante who defends the poor against the wealthy and greedy landowners. Zorro is finally captured by his nemesis, the Spanish governor, and thrown in prison for life. His wife is killed and his baby daughter is taken and adopted by the governor. 20 years later, the original Zorro, now pretty old, escapes from prison and meets a drunken, clumsy bandit (Antonio Banderas). Zorro takes on Banderas and trains him to be the new Zorro. Once Banderas is ready, the two of them take on the governor and attempt to stop his scheme to buy California from Mexico’s General Santa Ana. Banderas develops a romantic relationship with the governor’s now-grown daughter (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is unaware that Hopkins is her real dad.

This is perhaps the best Zorro movie ever made. It is a traditionally crafted big studio movie in every respect and I mean that in a good way. You have the dashing hero, his older mentor, the greedy villain, and the beautiful damsel (but not one in distress) against an exotic backdrop of Spanish-era California and lavish sets. The Mask of Zorro reminded me much of the Errol Flynn movies of the 1920s and 30s, which I’m sure influenced the filmmakers. Moreover, it does not attempt to re-imagine the character (like Tim Burton essentially does for Alice in Wonderland). Instead, the filmmakers respect the tradition of the character in the books, TV series, and films he has appeared in. They use the tradition to expand upon it and moreover, they use real historical persons and events to give the film some historical context and to ground it in reality. For example, the storyline originates from the book The Curse of Capistrano. Banderas’ brother, Joaquin Murrieta, was a real Mexican outlaw. He was killed by a California State Ranger, Harry Love, who is portrayed in this film as one of the villains. The film mentions the Mexican War of Independence and alludes to the war between the United States and Mexico. Finally, the governor’s scheme to mine gold foreshadows California’s Gold Rush. All of this shows the care and thought that went into making this film. This was not simply an action movie that merely strung elaborate action scenes together with a few talking head scenes thrown in for good measure.

I suppose some might fault The Mask of Zorro and in particular Antonio Banderas’ Zorro portrayal for its light-hearted approach. However, I don’t believe I have ever seen a previous version of Zorro as anything but a family-friendly light-hearted character. I was actually expecting there to be some good-humored fun, which the film does contain but without sacrificing the drama and thrills. Banderas could not be a more perfect Zorro and I believe this also marks the first time a Spanish actor has played the masked vigilante. Banderas possesses the perfect mix of charm, wit, athleticism, and looks to play this role. For American audiences, Banderas will probably and maybe appropriately so forever be most remembered for Zorro.

Anthony Hopkins as the original Zorro initially struck me as a strange choice of casting. I mean, I know the Zorro character has been played in the past by white actors, but Hopkins doesn’t exactly strike me as an action star despite some action films he’s starred in in the past. He doesn’t do a horrible job by any means playing Zorro. Even a half-assed effort by Hopkins is more than what many actors out there are capable of doing. On the other hand, I also got the sense that Hopkins simply dialed in his performance just to collect a paycheck. I didn’t see any motivation or drive to give it his all.

This movie marks the first time I ever saw Catherine Zeta-Jones. I initially didn’t believe she was Welsh. Anthony Hopkins is also Welsh, but he looks Welsh and Zeta-Jones sure as hell doesn’t. I figured her to be Greek, Spanish, or Italian so given her appearance and coupled with her stunning looks, I’m not surprised she was cast as Zorro’s love interest. Zeta-Jones everything she is meant to do here. She looks pretty, she can act, and she generates instant chemistry between she and Banderas. Whats more, she isn’t the typical damsel in distress. She knows how to use a sword and she speaks her mind. Whats not to love about her? When it was announced in the trades that a Wonder Woman movie was being developed, she immediately came to mind and I still think she can pull it off despite her age.

I don’t think audiences appreciate how difficult it is to come up with exciting action sequences and shoot them in such a way as to give them kinetic energy and make the audience feel a part of the action. Ever since he resurrected the James Bond franchise with Goldeneye, Martin Campbell has steadily established himself as the go-to director for action movies. He has an eye for coming up with thrilling situations for his characters that are original. Say what you will about the quality of his movies, but even his bad ones contain very good action sequences. With The Mask of Zorro, Campbell doesn’t disappoint. I have provided a number of film clips below to show you what I mean and I think you will agree that The Mask of Zorro still holds up great 12 years after its release.

I know a lot of you have already seen The Mask of Zorro and maybe even own it on DVD or Blu-Ray. For those who haven’t seen it, its an entertaining film that harkens back to the classic swashbucklers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Put it on your Netflix queue when you get a chance.

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