Apart from Antonio Banderas’ agent, manager and accountant, many folks probably weren’t clamoring for a sequel to The Mask of Zorro, a summer hit of 1998.
Banderas returns as the masked man in The Legend of Zorro, which picks up the action about a decade later and, at times, feels like it’s taking that long to play out. There are numerous dead spots in the 135-minute movie where you could easily catch another sort of “Z.” Swordfighting tales shouldn’t take so long to be unsheathed.
And it’s also silly, but not an Anthony-Hopkins-playing-an-aging-Latino kind of silly. OK, so Zorro’s horse, Tornado, drinks wine, smokes a pipe and, after a jump onto a moving train, widens his eyes in fear of an approaching tunnel. Tornado stops just short of whinnying with subtitles.
But in his pre-Spy Kids days, Banderas wasn’t yet on his excitement-for-kids kick. (This relatively bloodless sequel is PG down from the original’s PG-13.) While very far from greatness, this is a decent family action vehicle that better balances Zorro’s camp and romantic aspects.
The movie opens with our hero casting his “yes” vote for California statehood circa 1850. You have to wonder if he casts two ballots, given his alter ego is well-to-do Don Alejandro de la Vega.
Statehood should bring about solidarity, success and, most of all, federally enforced safety for the desperate people of California. And that might negate the need for Zorro-style justice. It’s the hope of Alejandro’s wife, Elena (Catherine Zeta Jones, passionlessly upholding a sequel contract), who wants him to spend more time with his wily young son, Joaquin (a winning Adrian Alonso).
After a verbal squabble, Alejandro leaves and, three months later, he’s drinking his misery away while Elena takes up with a new man. Armand is a French count with a successful vineyard, but because he’s played by prototypical baddie Rufus Sewell, something sinister must be afoot. Sure enough, Armand’s shadowy secret society wants to bump up the Confederacy’s timeline with more powerful weapons. Yeah, like Zorro’s going to hang up the mask when that’s happening.
Though it’s flabby with tangents and Banderas and Zeta Jones confuse chemistry for repetitive arguing, The Legend of Zorro feels like a movie in which there’s much more at stake. It’s to be expected of all heroes-with-crisis-of-conscience movies. Fittingly, the typically frantic Banderas reins himself in a bit. After voicing Shrek 2’s Puss in Boots, Zorro has to be a semi-caricature now, but Banderas successfully tries some subtlety — most effectively in a wordless wink to Joaquin.
The same can’t be said for the villains or the action.
Nick Chinlund hams it up rather effectively as a wooden-toothed lackey who equates murder with “the Lord’s work.” And when Armand’s accent is described as “foo-foo,” well, the script’s right. In his mouth, “Jack” becomes “Zheck.”
A sequence involving burnt britches, resembles a Yosemite Sam cartoon in real life. Plus, though costing more than the original, the film looks significantly cheaper, and it’s been a while since there were worse stand-ins for stunts.
Still, the movie works up to one tremendous finish involving a runaway train, bottles of Bordeaux and a little old-school derring do. Call it the result of phenomenally lowered expectations, but this sequel helps make the legend of Zorro as a modern-day film franchise go down a lot easier.