I was planning on going to see The 33 this past weekend, but none of the show times lined up with my availability – so, next week for that one. In the meantime, I attempted to stream Goldeneye, and instead came across The Mask of Zorro – starring The 33’s Antonion Banderas, and directed by Martin Campbell, who also directed GoldenEye. Well, that seemed like entirely too much of a coincidence, so here’s a quick review of this 1998 charmer.
Zorro, the “fox”, has always been the secret identify of Don Diego de la Vega, a fictional character created in 1919 by writer Johnston McCulley. De la Vega was a Californian nobleman of Spanish and native Californian descent, living in Los Angeles during the era of Mexican rule, between 1821 and 1846. The most common image is a dashing black-clad masked outlaw on his jet-black horse, Tornado, who uses fox-like cunning and great athletic skill and swordplay to “to avenge the helpless, to punish the cruel policticians, and to aid the oppressed”. Diego pretends to be a passionless fop, so no one will know his secret except for Bernardo (a deaf-mute servant) and Friar Felipe as he uses a rapier to leave a "Z" mark to give the people hope.
Zorro first appeared on film when Douglas Fairbanks played him in 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, However, I first became familiar with Zorro in reruns of the black and white Disney TV show starring Guy Williams as Zorro and Gene Sheldon as the deaf-mute Bernardo. It originally aired from 1957 – 1959. The show was very much serial episodes, and chronicled Zorro’s adventures against the cruel local Commandante, Captain Monastario. Not to mention, it had a really catchy theme song. "Out of the night...when the full moon is bright..."
In 1998, the Mask of Zorro was released, and somehow managed to capture the fun, adventurous tone of the TV show while still updating it for a current audience.
The story starts in 1821 as the Spanish Don Rafael Montero is leaving California for Spain while losing the war for the area to the Mexican General Santa Anna. Don Diego De La Vega is fighting against the Spanish and defending the local peasants as Zorro. Montero is about to have three random peasants killed (because he can - and to demonstrate to the audience how evil he is), but Zorro frees them, threatens Montero on his balcony to never return, and carves a small Z on his throat to remind him. However, this proves to be a bad idea, as Rafael recognizes his eyes, and shows up at de La Vega’s house afterwards, arresting him, and causing the death of his wife. He takes de la Vega’s infant daughter with him to Spain.
We jump forward 20 years, and are introduced to Alejandro and Joaquin Murrieta, two thieves working with “three fingered” Jack. They are hunted by Captain Harrison Love, who gets Joaquin killed. Meanwhile, Don Rafael is returning to California with a plan and his now adult daughter – he checks the prisons to see if his old nemesis is around, but cannot find de La Vega – who escapes prison and encounters Alejandro, consumed with grief, at a bar. He agrees to train Alejandro, who wants to kill Captain Love, who is working with Rafael, who is the focus of De La Vega’s revenge. Everybody loves when revenge plans line up!
We get a few training sequences as Alejandro gets better and better with a blade, a whip, and general smarts. He steals an all-black stallion from the local garrison as his first outing in the mask. Eventually he infiltrates Rafael’s party as a fancy nobleman with Diego disguised as his servant Bernardo, and gets a little too comfortable with his daughter, Elena – who mistakenly believes her mother was killed in childbirth.
Alejandro learns that Rafael is planning on buying California from General Santa Anna with gold he has mined from Santa Anna’s own land, and that he has enslaved the locals to dig the gold for him. After the Dons tour the mine, Love starts to suspect Alejandro, and invites him to his office, to attempt to determine if he is the other Murrieta brother (In fact, there was a real Mexican outlaw named Joaquin Murrieta, and he was killed by the California State Rangers, led by the real Harry Love. Not only that, but in reality, the real Harry Love did keep Murrieta’s head in a jar in his office – weird). To ensure that Santa Anna will not learn this of the gold switching, Rafael and Love decide to explode the mine, burying it and the workers. Zorro steps in to save the people, and make sure that Rafael and Love both get their comeuppance. Elena eventually learns the truth about Diego being her true father, and falls in love with Alejandro, as Alejandro carries on the mantle of Zorro.
The movie was mostly filmed as Estudios Churubusco in Mexican City. It was originally going to be directed by Robert Rodriguez, right off his success with Desperado – which is why Antonio Banderas was cast as the lead, however, there were some budget disputes, and Rodriguez stepped out and Martin Campbell stepped in. Parts of the movie are distinctively Campbell (No Esacpe, GoldenEye, Vertical Limit, Legend of Zorro, Casino Royale, Edge of Darkness)– big, sweeping locations that look beautiful on screen. The action is incredible because it is all practical. The fight scenes, the swordplay, and the general acrobatics of Zorro are magnificently brought to the forefront as he takes on and humiliates the soldiers. The final action set piece at the mine where both Zorros finally get their revenge on the men they’ve spent most the movie hunting is incredible, because everything is stuntmen and practical effects. Not to mention the explosion of the mine at the end – it’s one of those explosions that I’m sure they had 10 cameras on, because they were only going to get to do it once!
In terms of the cast, everyone is just fantastic;
- While Desperado was the first breakout performance by Antonio Banderas, this is the movie that first really allowed him to shine. The transformation from the dirty thief (he’s literally covered in dirt) with no skills to the very smooth and dapper Don is beautifully portrayed by Banderas, and yes, he’s very sexy.
- This was the first time I remember seeing Catherine Zeta Jones in anything, and for a Welsh woman, she portrays a fiesta Latina lady very well. Her swordfight with Zorro in the stables is fantastic – and I remember it definitely being a big trailer moment for this movie.
- Anthony Hopkins told people he was very excited about doing this movie because he wanted to be in an action flick! He’s perfect as the aging Don Diego, and as he trains Alejandro as his replacement, he also conveys just a bit that he’s training him as a weapon to get his revenge.
- Stuart Wilson plays Don Rafael, and what a great villain. He’s so incredibly arrogant and vile, from stealing Deigo’s baby to wanting to bury the workers in the mine.
- Matt Letscher plays Captain Love, and I just saw him last season on the Flash as the reverse Flash – so it was fun to backtrack and see him again as this character. His wig does half the work, but his snide personality does the other half – he’s great at being evil, and you just can’t wait for him to get what’s coming to him, especially after he tries to get a reaction out of Alejandro by producing his brother’s head in a jar. Sick.
- Speaking of, Victor Rivers plays Joaquin Murrieta, the short lived brother of Alejandro.
- L.Q. Jones plays the famous outlaw – Three-Fingered Jack.
If you never saw this movie, or haven’t seen it in a long time, it’s streaming free on Amazon Prime, and available to rent on DVD/BluRay through Netflix. It’s worth watching again – and because of the practical nature of the effects and fights, as well as the period-piece nature of the story, it absolutely holds up as a great adventure story.
9 out of 10 – I’m taking away one point for the head/hand in the jar bit. A little too much for a family-friendly movie, and my guess is that the Governor watched it one too many times, leading him to think heads in jars was a good practice.
Bonus Video 1 – The opening to Desperado – if you haven’t seen this one either – do yourself a favor and watch it.
Bonus Video 2 – The Expendables 3, Antonio steals the middle of this movie. Wesley Snipes steals the front, and Harrison Ford (yes, that Harrison Ford) steals the end, but it’s super fun the whole way through.
Bonus Video 3 – cast interviews