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Legend of Zorro, The (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 28 October 2005
“The Legend of Zorro” gets into Zorro action right away, but what goes on is far more elaborate and unlikely-looking than in “The Mask of Zorro”—or any other Zorro movie, for that matter. Director Martin Campbell returns, along with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but they seem unwilling to trust the strength of their own premise, for Zorro has been reinvented. He rarely takes on anyone with his sword—and when he does, carves only a couple of Zs and never skewers anyone. The action scenes are wildly improbable, though the opening sequence does feature a lot of graceful acrobatics, leaving you to suspect a standard feature of Old California rooftops was camouflaged trampolines.

Zorro was originally conceived as a kind of Mexican Robin Hood, a nobleman who gallops about in black costume and cape righting wrongs done the peasant populace by the more avaricious of his own class. In the old phrase, he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, and in doing so showed he was the finest swordsman in Old California. As well as dashing, handsome and brave.

In “The Legend of Zorro,” he’s pitted against a literally globe-encircling conspiracy, Orbis Unum, or the Knights of Aragon. These widespread schemers want to do nothing less than blow up the United States, just as California is being welcomed into the union as the 31st states. (Though the American flags in the movie seem to have a lot more than 30 stars.) With a display of some elaborate gadgetry, including in the background something firing off electric bolts, the movie edges uncomfortably close to the big screen version of “The Wild Wild West,” surely accidentally. Who’d want to remind audiences of that?

In short, Zorro may look like Zorro here, and Banderas may play him with some of the same dash and panache that he brought to the role before, but he’s a whole heck of a lot more like a 19th-century James Bond than the horseman known as Zorro. The one big swordfight he has begins in the confined setting of a railway car and proceeds out to the top of the thundering steam engine drawing the train. This must be one of those remarkable engines that use cold steam, as Zorro and his opponent have no trouble scrambling over the boiler. And their quarrel is not settled at the point of a sword, but with a gigantic explosion.

The movie is also filled with peculiar anachronisms. In 1850, were the southern states even called the Confederacy? They are here, and it’s an important plot point. The Pinkerton agency was founded in 1850; did they immediately go to work as secret service agents for the government in Washington?
But all this was an error to begin with. Zorro belongs where he was born—in Old California dominated by Spanish-born dons, peopled with white-clad peasants in straw hats and friendly, rascally friars, plus clumsy police officers. This Old California is mostly a myth, but it’s a wonderfully romantic backdrop to tales of Zorro, which have been told on screen since 1920. The whole question of the United States really should be left out of a Zorro story; the most romantic, exciting elements of the Zorro myth work best when the society is so stratified.

It’s ten years after the events in the first movie. Alejandro (Banderas) and Elena (Zeta-Jones) are still married and have a young son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). As the story opens, the local community (not Los Angeles, though that’s the usual Zorro setting) is voting on statehood. A really nasty bad guy, McGivens (Nick Chinlund), wants to steal the ballot box—just why is never made clear—but Zorro leaps (and leaps and leaps) into action and thwarts the bad guy’s plans, personally delivering the ballot box to the governor. (The scarred McGivens views himself as an agent of God. This seems intrusive and useless.)

Joaquin is a huge fan of Zorro, and tries to emulate his idol by using a slingshot, but he’s unaware that his own often-absent father is actually his hero Zorro. A couple of suspicious characters have a quick fight with Elena, then tell her they know her husband is secretly Zorro. Soon thereafter, Elena serves Alejandro with divorce papers. He’s shocked; he didn’t think their occasional squabbles meant much. (Incidentally, just how likely IS it for a Catholic couple of the time to even consider divorce? Did the concept even exist in the culture?)

Three months later, Alejandro has become a drunken wastrel, and Elena is being courted by French count Armand (Rufus Sewell), whom she knew back in Spain. Alejandro and Armand have a few arch, sarcastic encounters, including a showdown in what seems to be a peculiar cross between polo and jousting. Alejandro and Elena quarrel frequently. Joaquin longs for the return of Zorro. Blah blah blah.

The middle third of the movie is very talky and slow, with everyone being cute or sinister. Anachronistic slang gets tossed about; trying to get the drunken Alejandro to leave Armand’s party—peculiarly, it’s a wine tasting, as he’s beginning a vineyard—the local wisecracking friar says, “Well, I’m pooped.” Joaquin taunts an opponent, “You want a taste of me?” This kind of stuff is jarring, deeply harming the tone of the movie for the sake of a cheap laugh. Another cheap laugh is obtained by baldly swiping an image from “Cat Ballou:” drunken horse, drunken rider, lounging against a wall. Not only is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address quoted well before it was written, but a man who is clearly supposed to be Lincoln himself is glimpsed among the dignitaries in the climactic scene. (And yes, the official cast list does cite an actor as playing Lincoln.)

The action scenes are almost as fanciful as those in Hong Kong action movies; I presume if there’s a third Banderas Zorro movie, his costar will be Jet Li. McGivens fires downward into a crowd of peasants, knocking off hats but never hitting a person. Zorro’s horse seems to have come from Krypton; he can’t quite fly, but he has little trouble leaping from a cliff onto the roof of a speeding train. It’s almost as ridiculous as the chasm-leaping horses-and-coach in “Van Helsing.” The horse and black-clad rider do look great galloping down dark country roads, over deserts thick with cactus, rearing against the sunset. But the silly elements in the movie constantly undercut the romanticism, which is always burgeoning without ever quite being realized.

Running more than two hours, the movie is long for an adventure movie of this nature; there are just too many foot-dragging, unnecessary scenes. Still, it has to be admitted, that at times it does rise to the right Zorro levels. Though they’re cut into so many fragments (sometimes in the middle of a word) that we never get an appreciation for the hard work of the extensive stunt team, the action scenes are often lively and entertaining, and the preview audience applauded at the end of the movie.

It’s also true it’s great to see Banderas back in the role of Zorro; he can buckle a swash with the best of them; for that matter, so can Zeta-Jones (and most of the scant good guys, including the kid). It’s especially pleasing to see Zeta-Jones and her sly, distinctive smile on the big screen again instead of merely in TV commercials. Rufus Sewell and Nick Chinlund are satisfactory bad guys, but it’s surprising bigger names weren’t chosen.

Adrian Alonso, however, is a real find. He’s Mexican, didn’t speak any English when he was hired for the role, but you’d never tell it from the movie. He’s spunky, energetic and cute, even believable in his occasional action scenes. He’s got a bubbly, ingratiating personality which works very well in this context. But what is he doing here? Is he for kids in the audience? Maybe, but they’ll be antsy during the many dialogue scenes.

Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who came up with the idea of restaging Zorro movies, co-wrote “Mask” but here merely share story credit with Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, who wrote the final script. They also wrote this year’s “The Island,” so while they’re newcomers, they’re not exactly promising. Nonetheless, blame for the unexciting, drawn-out middle third of the movie must be placed on the head of director Campbell. He directed the 007 movie “GoldenEye” and is set to do the next, “Casino Royale;” he brought to the Zorro movies, particularly this one, rather too much from James Bond. Zorro and 007 are very dissimilar characters—they probably would detest one another—and their movies shouldn’t be alike, either.

What a story like this needs, and needs badly, is an overarching plot, an opponent established very early who’s powerful and scheming, threatened by Zorro whom he sees as his primary threat. The story should have developed with this in mind, so that each sequence connects in some way to the next. Instead, we see a big action scene—and suddenly three months go by in one edit. Swashbuckling adventure tales need sweep and momentum; “The Legend of Zorro” has the visual sweep, but the story moves by fits and starts.

Still, Zorro is such a great figure, appealing, exciting, romantic in both senses of the word, that even a Zorro movie that doesn’t quite work is better than no Zorro movie at all.

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