There are few remakes that can take an 18th century legend (revisited for the umpteenth time by Hollywood, no less) and transform it into a contemporary action film that defies stereotyping and cliché. Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro (1998) can and does just that. This is the film that resurrected Antonio Bandaras' sagging career as a Latin American heartthrob and introduced us all to the luscious Catherine Zeta-Jones. But beyond that, the screenplay by John Eskow, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio is a glowing revision on the familiar adventure yarn.
Set in 1821, our story concerns Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro (Anthony Hopkins), an aging legend who has decided to retire his mask and cape on the eve that his identity is discovered by arch nemesis, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) - an unscrupulous Spanish governor. Accidentally murdering de la Vega's wife, Esperanza (Julieta Rosen) with whom both men are deeply in love, Montero imprisons de la Vega in the Citadel and raises his only child, daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) as his own. The knowledge that he has lost everything that was dear to him is enough to nearly break our hero's spirit. The years pass, the legend fades and all seems lost.
But the legacy of Zorro is not yet ready to fade quietly into the night. A chance meeting in the market square between the newly escaped de la Vega and local bandito, Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), who has just witnessed the brutal beheading of his beloved brother at the hands of sadist Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), results in a curious alliance - one that may satisfy both men's purpose for revenge. Alejandro places his trust in the tutelage of the old master. Alejandro will avenge his brother and de la Vega will reclaim Elena.
Alejandro makes a misguided first attempt to unsettle the governor's unscrupulous police, invading their sleeping quarters in the middle of the night and stirring up a sensation of controversy. De la Vega is outraged. Alejandro's ineptitude might have jeopardized their plans. Some weeks later Alejandro - in the disguise of a cultured Spanish nobleman - attends Don Raphael's lavish house party with de la Vega posing as his man servant. The men learn that Don Raphael plans to sell Santa Anna his own gold, employing imprisoned rabble to work a hidden mine in the California desert.
After entertaining romantic thoughts with Elena that raise Don Raphael's dander, Alejandro terrorizes the Don's men by reincarnating himself as Zorro. Fearful of Santa Anna's retribution, Don Raphael reasons that the gold mine has outlived its usefulness. After taking all of the gold out of it, he traps the workers inside with plans to blow everything up. Only now Don Raphael must first face the man he betrayed so very long ago.
De la Vega tells Elena he is her real father and he and Don Raphael cross swords once more. Alejandro and Captain Love do battle for the last time, with Alejandro avenging his brother's death. Elena frees the workers moments before the mine is destroyed. But de la Vega has been mortally wounded. He dies giving his blessing to Alejandro to look after his daughter. In the final moments Alejandro and Elena are pictured together as a couple standing over the crib of their child.
The Mask of Zorro is a supremely engrossing swashbuckler. Producer Steven Spielberg originally began the project with thoughts of directing the film himself. After some hesitation Spielberg handed the reigns to Martin Campbell, but not before two other directors briefly became attached to the project. Relying on no less than six scenarists, director Martin Campbell delivers a lavish spectacle that never forgets its intimate human saga.
Originally, the part of de la Vega was to have gone to Sean Connery. Even after Connery bowed out of the project Anthony Hopkins was not entirely certain he wanted to do the film. His apprehensions stemmed from a bad back that the actor feared would impede his performance during the more athletic action sequences. Undergoing surgery to correct the problem, and sufficiently healed, Hopkins signed on to the film, giving one of the best performances of his career as the sage imparting his wisdom and expertise on a new man in the black mask.
Antonio Bandaras is the perfect Zorro. This is a role tailor made for him and he clearly relishes every moment of it. However, Catherine Zeta-Jones is the real revelation in this film. Like so many - including Zeta-Jones' husband to be, Michael Douglas - this was my first introduction to the actress and it was a mind-blowing experiences on several levels. Shockingly gorgeous, the actress also proved she could...well...act - well! There is genuine chemistry between her and Bandaras and this really sells the love story that takes over the last act of the story.
Stuart Wilson and Matt Letscher are formidable villains. Everything works and all the pieces fit. The stunts are full scale and exhilarating. The Mask of Zorro is a flawless swashbuckler that reminds us what great film making is all about.
Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-ray delivers the goods and the 'wow' factor that 1080p hi-def should. This is an exemplary visual presentation with robust colors, solid deep velvety blacks and very clean whites. The audio is 7.1 Dolby DTS is extremely aggressive. This is a reference quality presentation worthy of anyone’s film library. Extras are imports from previous DVD incarnations and include an audio commentary and short featurettes on the making of the film. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)