The complaints surrounding action films these days are easy to predict before anybody starts pulling them out: The story just doesn’t have much heart, the action sequences themselves are so tied in with computerized trickery as to carry little weight, the absurdity of the scenarios robs the film of any sense of urgency as the hero dances around deadly digital calamity and you just know he’s doing it on a green screen set. Even the wildly successful superhero genre is not immune from these legitimate criticisms. It’s fun to watch Spider-Man’s magic!kick, but your brain isn’t for a moment fooled that it’s happening on any real level.
Yet, while I was watching a screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I noticed that in one particular scene, the audience was really invested in an early fight scene in which Chris Evans’ thawed-out super soldier engages in a knockdown fight with a man the credits insist is Batroc. Neither of these gentlemen have superpowers, though both are well-trained fighters. At the moment Cap executes some insane vertical spin kick that seems to land on Batroc with the force of a sack full of bowling balls, the entire audience, me included, cheered in that particular way that is somewhere between a groan and a chuckle. The ending sequence, replete with airborne combat and exploding airships, failed to evoke the same degree of enthusiasm.
This is because the first felt real and the second, while an exciting end to the plot, did not. It’s why Blade Runner 2049’s vicious final battle—little more than a knife fight between two actors in a water-tank set—is more thrilling than Black Panther’s jubilant Afro-futuristic free-for-all, fun as that was. And it is why 1998’s The Mask of Zorro has aged even better than its stars, who are all still running around doing must-see work.
“You know, there is a saying, a very old saying, that when the pupil is ready, the master will appear.” —De la Vega
The Mask of Zorro begins in California in 1821 as Mexico casts off the Spanish government, and Campbell wisely decides to begin it in the most swashbuckling way imaginable, with a public execution of innocent peasants as the regional governor Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson, delivering a sneering baddie who is not without nuance) tries to draw out his nemesis, Zorro. He does draw him out, of course, and it goes about as well for him as you’d expect. Anthony Hopkins’ masked vigilante comes swinging into action, winning with a combination of swordplay, acrobatics, help from the sympathetic crowd, and the poor marksmanship and slow reloading time of his enemies.
After freeing the oppressed and humiliating Montero one final time, Zorro sheds his mask and returns home to his life as Don Diego de la Vega, husband and father to the wife and newborn daughter, he now hopes to be able to retire to. That wouldn’t be much of a movie, so Montero barges in, reveals de la Vega to be Zorro, and accidentally kills his wife in the ensuing skirmish. We know (because Montero tells us) that he loved de la Vega’s wife, too, and is just as hurt by her death. He throws Zorro in jail, but not before assuring him he will raise his daughter as his own.
It’s worth mentioning that this whole setup is top-notch, expositing with deft economy everything the audience needs to know about the conflict at the heart of this melodrama in five tight little minutes, before showing us the story on display: That of Antonio Banderas’ next-generation Zorro.
A common criminal whose brother is killed by a sadistic U.S. Army captain, Banderas’ Alejandro Murrieta is actually the fictional brother of a real-life bandit, Joaquin Murrieta, who really was killed by a captain named Harry Love and whose head really was, ugh, pickled in a jar. It’s worth mentioning that there are interesting background facts about Mexican independence from Spain that actually seem to figure into the movie’s plot—including the fact that historians consider the 1821 independence movement largely to be engineered by local aristocrats in order to prevent a more left-leaning Spanish government from wresting power from them. It’s gratifying that a flashy summer action flick decided to do some period research, but easy to see why it works in the film’s favor: It just reinforces the theme that Zorro will always have well-dressed blue bloods to fight against.
Alejandro, we discover, is one of the two boys who gave Zorro a hand during the opening action sequence and was rewarded with a bit of finery that the elder Zorro recognizes once he breaks out of the hellish prison where he’s been rotting for twenty years. Apparently the only motivation he needed to do so was to see his nemesis—Montero has returned to California to curry favor, but is so terrified at the prospect of occupying the same hemisphere as Zorro again that he goes to the prison to confirm that his old foe is dead and fails to recognize the haggard de la Vega.
Because this is that kind of movie, de la Vega runs into the hard-drinking and depressed Alejandro at the exact moment he runs into Captain Love and prepares to throw his life away in failed revenge. De la Vega stops him, and for a moment the viewer is dismayed that he might suggest that revenge is an empty and meaningless pursuit that harms the avenger more so than the object of his vengeance. Then you find out that no, de la Vega’s thesis is that revenge is totally awesome and is only worth doing if you’re going to do it right and live to laugh over your enemy’s corpse. Alejandro is brought under de la Vega’s wing and soon finds himself the inheritor of the mask of Zorro, back from the darkness to seek out the couch of the aristocracy and do it a proper Rick James in the name of the people.
This was, in essence, a superhero reboot/origin story, released mere weeks before Blade would slaughter its way into movie theaters (that were at that time still in America’s malls) and kick off the trend of the last 20 years. It’s actually interesting to discover that the story has no precursor in any of the pulp or serialized broadcast drama that makes up Zorro’s long history as a fictional character—this is a totally original plot. And it’s fitting that the script would take that sort of form in the wake of (successful if unfortunate) movies about Zorro’s spiritual descendant, Batman.
Montero: “You were not the Zorro I saw last night. That was your master, Don Alejandro.”
Diego: “Yes. But there are many who would proudly wear the mask of Zorro.”
There was very nearly a totally ridiculous version of this same movie. Steven Spielberg was behind the whole production, signing on to have it distributed by TriStar. At first, Robert Rodriguez was attached to direct, and it’s amusing to imagine the gonzo lunacy with which he might have injected this Mexican character who, to this day, has never been portrayed in a major Hollywood film by a Mexican actor. (While it is certainly arguable to claim The Mask of Zorro has a whitewashed principal cast, the truth is that most of the characters themselves are Spanish aristocrats—many of whom had a lot more in common ethnically with Northern Europeans than their subjects.)
At one point, too, Sean Connery was signed on for the role of de la Vega. Despite how totally convincingly he’d played another Spanish sword master, it’s still hard to imagine he would have given as elegant and grave a performance as Sir Anthony. The movie was also the breakout role for Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose performance as de la Vega’s daughter Elena was singlehandedly responsible for an entire generation’s onset of puberty.
Eventually Martin Campbell was attached to direct, hot off his success with GoldenEye, and it’s easy to see why he was the right person to helm another de facto rebooting of a legacy character that also stuck the landing. Everything works in The Mask of Zorro, from the A-list cast to the playful dialogue to the clearly composed action sequences, all of which occur only after the film has taken great pains to establish the locations and how all the various parts of the set relate to one another in space. This is a crucial part of enjoying the final set piece in particular, in which Banderas and Hopkins wreck a gold mine run by slave labor and kill the absolute hell out of the loathsome pricks that wronged them. It’s always a treat to see a bad guy end up underneath a couple tons of gold ingots, but it’s really special when the filmmakers actually care about the blocking.
(Well, almost everything works: The sword fight between Zeta-Jones and Banderas—you know, the one in which he disrobes her—would definitely not read as playful today.)
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the movie also finds time for quiet character moments that give Anthony Hopkins the opportunity to act his ass off, as in a tender scene where he must bite his tongue rather than reveal to Zeta-Jones what is in his heart.
De la Vega: “Is it finished?
Alejandro: “Yes, Don Diego. It’s finished.”
De la Vega: “Not for Zorro. There will be other days, other battles to fight. It is your curse and destiny.”
The movie strikes me as so similar to the current trend of superhero flicks because ultimately it had to check off the same boxes as any such film that must dust off an old property and breathe new life into it.
Zorro is a character even older than some may realize: Next year will mark the centennial of creator Johnston McCulley’s first Zorro story, 1919’s The Curse of Capistrano. Rooted in the pulp fiction trends of the turn of the century, with its gentleman criminals and Gilded Age rabblerousing rage, memorable to most elderly filmgoers chiefly due to Disney’s hokey live action series from the ’50s, the Zorro mythos was utterly anachronistic in ’98. Yet, The Mask of Zorro manages to tell a story that freshens up the character while acknowledging and honoring his roots—including the swashbuckling action everybody wanted to see.
But then, I guess Captain America also seemed pretty anachronistic, too, until he returned to helm a triumphant franchise. He was a character who elicited scorn and dismissal from most people I mentioned him to until he found his way into the hands of a director who cared to tell his story the right way—and now it seems mainstream audiences can’t get enough of him. If we must abide in this age where most major releases are resurrecting or rebooting iconic characters, maybe those in charge of adapting a somewhat younger character than Zorro could look to movies like this one for their cues.
Kenneth Lowe fights as safely as possible. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and has been published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Illinois Issues Magazine and Colombia Reports. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.