The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Mask of Zorro

My first introduction the character of Zorro goes back to a Disney Sing-A-Long VHS tape (Yes, VHS, and it was awesome), the theme imprinting itself on my young brain. Listen HERE, and you're welcome. The Zorro character has gone onto bigger and better things, including a late 90s swashbuckling adventure that I missed out as a 13-year old. Here's 1998's The Mask of Zorro.

It's the early 1820s in California -- then still a Spanish territory -- and the people are constantly kept down by the Spanish governor, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson). Providing a thorn in his side is Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), a rich landowner who has an alter-ego known as Zorro, a masked bandit and expert swordsman who protects the people and baffles the Spanish governor. Montero finally catches up with Zorro though before being sent back to Spain amidst a revolution, dumping the landowner turned bandit in a dumpy prison while also wreaking havoc on Vega's family. Some 20 years later, Vega is wasting away but he manages to pull off a daring escape. What prompts it? He finds out Montero has returned to California with plans to take over the territory. Vega needs help to exact revenge though and finds it in the form of a vengeful Mexican bandit, Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), who must undergo quite the transformation -- with Vega's help -- to exact his revenge and possibly save California in the process from a whole lot of trouble.

The Zorro character's inception dates back to author Johnston McCulley in the late 1910s, the character appearing in some pulp fiction with his popularity quickly spreading. Zorro has appeared in books since then as well as comic books, TV shows and movies on an international level, not just in the United States. As I mentioned, I missed this 1998 adventure when it first came out -- being a punky teenager and all -- but here I sit to catch up with it. 'Mask' was a big success, earning positive reviews and making $250 million in theaters. The reasoning?

From director Martin Campbell, 'Mask' feels like a throwback to swashbuckling movies of Hollywood's Golden Age dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. What did it remind me of most? Maybe the best adventure flick of all time, 1939's The Adventures of Robin Hood. No, this isn't even remotely classic, but my goodness, what a fun movie. The production was somewhat troubled with some casting drama and Robert Rodriguez dropping out (with Campbell replacing him), but it doesn't affect things in the least. The formula is simple. The good guys are honorable, loyal and heroic. The bad guys are evil, despicable, greedy, backstabbing and will no doubt get their comeuppance. The story is a tad long at 136 minutes, but there's not much downtime with a series of swordfights and action scenes sprinkled throughout. In an age where action movies often have a message, it's fun to see a movie that's

Who better to play the suave, smooth swordsman than suave, smooth Antonio Banderas? I submit that NO ONE would have been better. Just like in Desperado, probably his most well-known roles along with Puss-In-Boots, Banderas just commits to the part. He's manic energy on the screen, and it works so effortlessly and well. You like Banderas' Alejandro turned Zorro, you're rooting for him, and Banderas looks to be having a ton of fun every minute he's on-screen. It's the Spanish actor at his best. It doesn't hurt either that his supporting cast is excellent, especially his chemistry with Hopkins (a somewhat unlikely Spaniard) and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Elena, the governor's daughter -- with a secret -- who takes a liking to Alejandro, all the while not knowing who he is or what he's up to. The mentor-student relationship between Hopkins and Banderas is excellent, and the chemistry between Zeta-Jones is palpable, whether it be their salsa dance scene or their later swordfight.

So Banderas, Hopkins and Zeta-Jones, that's enough, right? Those are the best parts, but there's more. Wilson is okay as the bigger villain, that dastardly greedy returning governor, but the best villain is Matt Letscher as Captain Harrison Love, apparently a U.S. Army officer working with the Mexicans? It's never really explained, but who cares I guess, he's easy to hate. Also look for Stuart Wilson and Pedro Armendariz Jr. as two Dons, landowners who team up with Montero in his plot to take over California. Smaller parts go to Victor Rivers as Alejandro's brother, a famous bandit, while western character actor L.Q. Jones delivers a small but memorable part as Three-Fingered Jack, an infamous bandit.

As I read some about the making of the movie, it was cool to find out at least part of the story and characters are based in reality of 1850s California history. Now there are some major freedoms taken with that story, but it's always interesting. With a score from composer James Horner and filming on-location in Mexico, the look, sound and feel of the movie is pretty spot-on. The set pieces from a fun training montage to the action-heavy finale at a gold mine carved into the side of a mountain are all pretty memorable. It's that pretty perfect popcorn movie. Sit back and enjoy.

The Mask of Zorro (1998): ***/****

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