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Legend of Zorro, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
ImageIn Spanish, Zorro means fox.  But I knew Johnston McCulley’s pulp hero from the Walt Disney television series long before I ever learned even a smattering of Spanish.  Zorro was my second favorite television “cowboy”, as I thought of him then, after the Lone Ranger.  And he was the first whip-wielding hero I’d ever scene.  If it hadn’t been for all of Zorro’s tricks, I might not have bought into Indiana Jones’s ability as much.

The hero first came to life in the pulp magazines back in 1919.  Johnston McCulley had been a police reporter and served in World War I.  He was also something of an amateur historian and fell in love with the legends of Southern California.  Given the pulp nature of the day of heroes operating outside (or even against the law) to right the wrongs done against honest people, the Zorro character was a natural.

As with most vigilante heroes, Zorro appeared to be one of the indolent rich, but he went into action in his black uniform, scarlet-lined cape, mask, and flat-brimmed hat.  It wasn’t until the Douglas Fairbanks movie that Zorro’s particular look got hammered out, though.  The trend of rich vigilante became a staple of heroes.  Batman, anyone? In fact, the origin of Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murder has been rewritten to include the name of the movie they were out to see that tragic night.  Bruce had seen and become enamored of Zorro righting wrongs.  Robin the Boy Wonder also took his name from a movie about an iconic hero, Robin Hood.

So there’s a wealth of history that can be attributed to the Zorro movie franchise.  Given the national attention to the character, McCulley wrote 54 more stories about Zorro and they appeared every month in a magazine.  By the time the last one was printed, Guy Williams was starring in the Walt Disney television series.  In a weird Hollywood turn, Clayton Moore (“The Lone Ranger”) starred in “Ghost of Zorro” as Don Diego’s grandson.  “Zorro, the Gay Blade” was a stab at humor with the character.

In 1998, Director Martin Campbell helmed “The Mask of Zorro”.  Sir Anthony Hopkins starred as the aging Don Diego, looking for someone to carry on the Zorro name.  He chose scruffy Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas) as his successor.  His daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) was raised by his archenemy.  By the end of that film, Alejandro has risen to the task, won Elena’s heart, and defeated the villain.

That brings us to “The Legend of Zorro”, the latest film in the movie franchise.  Martin Campbell returns to direct a script written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, but the story was written by two of the original “The Mask of Zorro” screenwriters, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.

As in “The Mask of Zorro”, there is a great mixture of action, humor, and snappy dialogue.  I loved the first movie and easily forgave it of its sins because it took me back to my childhood back in 1998.  But in 2005 when the sequel came out, I got to take my youngest son with me and show him one more hero that I’d grown up with.  Granted, his heroes fly space cruisers and do super kung fu moves instead of ride horses, but he still got caught up in the fun.

Later, when I purchased the standard DVD, we enjoyed the movie again at home, but it lacked some of the punch of being in the theater.  However, the new Blu-ray edition threatens to punch holes in the wall with the surround sound system and the high-definition video is absolutely stunning to look at.  The picture is so clear it feels as though you could step through the monitor and walk through the town streets with Alejandro and Elena.

Although only seven years of real time have passed, ten years have passed in movie time.  Elena and Alejandro have gotten married and had a son, Joaquin De La Vega (Adrian Alonzo).  Alejandro gave up his name to take Diego’s.  They’ve also entered a different point in their relationship as well.  In the past, Elena often went with Zorro on his missions, or at least took part.  Now, as Joaquin’s mother, she has to sit on the sidelines.  That’s caused a lot of family strife.

Their decision not to tell Joaquin about their father’s vigilante career also brings pressure on the marriage.  Even worse, Joaquin is proving to be trouble all on his own because he’s just as high-spirited and opinionated as his parents.  Not only that, Joaquin wishes his laidback father possessed more of the fire of Zorro.

Admittedly, the script plays havoc with the real history of California by presenting a strong Confederate States of America threat, which was not the case at all, but the liberties are taken in fun.  Nick Chinlund plays a totally evil and despicable villain named Jacob McGivens who  draws boos and hisses from the crowd immediately.  Rufus Sewell’s Count Armand is much more svelte and well-mannered, especially while putting the moves on Elena.

The plot becomes convoluted quickly, but never quite gets lost.  It does take a moment to think through everything because nothing quite gets revealed all at the same time.  There are a lot of mysterious people floating around, and Count Armand’s goals aren’t in plain view for a while.  And some of the subplots are clichés.  Zorro and Elena’s disagreement and eventual break up is almost rote of any romance movie filmed fifty or sixty years ago.  Joaquin’s dissatisfaction with his father comes from about the same time period.

Campbell keeps things stirred, though, and the movie never breaks stride, offering a thundering plunge toward the end.  The final action sequences, especially of Zorro and Tornado leaping onto a running train from a cliff top, are so far over the top you can taste the ozone.  My son and I loved the sword fighting scenes the best.  The fight choreography was amazing and it must have taken everyone involved hours and days to get everything to look so good on film.

The humor, deadpan and wordplay and pratfall, is a wonderful thread that runs through the whole movie.  Joaquin wins the respect of his fellow classmates when he bests the irate teacher with a ruler and takes a bow.  Then runs into his father, who is not amused.  Zorro’s own drunken escapade on Tornado, reminiscent of the first movie, is a delight all over again.  And the secret argument on the balcony with Count Armand moving into and out of the scene is terrific, even if it is more than a little derivative.

The special features section of the Blu-ray disc is good.  I especially enjoyed the commentary, but the deconstruction sequences, particularly the one involving the train scenes, were enlightening.  Throughout the other featurettes, it’s readily apparent that everyone on the set was playing as much as working.  The time spent had to have been wonderfully entertaining on several levels.

“The Legend of Zorro” didn’t set out to break any molds.  The story unwinds in tried and true fashion.  The father/son story works.  The estrangement between Alejandro and Elena works.  But most of all, the legend works.  This is Zorro as he was meant to be, a whirlwind of avenging action, a touch of panache, and a full-blown hero.  This is a great family film and a definite must for anyone with a weakness for masked heroes and derring-do.

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