In 1821, Mexico was being divided amongst various territories, and the locals were to finally get to rule themselves away from the Spaniards who had been clamping down on their potential for revolution; one of those men in control was Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), who just as the handover was about to be completed was set to put three peasants to death to set an example of them to anyone who dared to rise up against their masters. But he did not count on those peasants having a champion, the mysterious Zorro, who he did not know was the nobleman Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), and had been leading a bid for freedom against the tyranny for some years. But all that was set to change dramatically…
Zorro was a character created by Johnston McCulley decades before this blockbuster was released – he was an inspiration for Bob Kane’s Batman comics to give you some idea of how influential he was – and had made regular visits to the big screen since the silent days, most memorably in the Douglas Fairbanks megahit of the nineteen-twenties, and later in the forties where he was played by Tyrone Power. One aspect that was compulsory was that he be played by a dashing leading man, and those two assuredly fit that bill, but when it was time to revive the hero in the nineties after some time trying, professional handsome gentleman Antonio Banderas was the obvious choice seeing as how his international standing had risen dramatically over then-recent years.
He was a star in search of a big role, a popular movie that could cement his reputation as Spain’s most major film celebrity, and he was rewarded in this hot blooded version of the familiar tale which emphasised Zorro’s barely repressed temperament as he plays the nobleman as a disguise, but is actually the man of derring-do underneath the black mask when he takes on the evildoers’ forces. But wasn’t Hopkins the world’s least convincing Mexican? Ah, no, because he is imprisoned by Montero after about twenty minutes of screen time that has seen his wife killed and his infant daughter Elena (who will grow up to be Catherine Zeta-Jones) adopted by his arch-enemy as his own offspring. The injustice!
However, we move two decades on, Don Diego escapes the hellhole he’s been chained up in and does a bit of adoption of his own, taking on Banderas’ common thief Alejandro as his protégé, much as a martial arts movie from Hong Kong would have the wise old mentor teaching the upstart in the ways of his craft. In this case, Alejandro received the full hero package, from the swordplay (this was one of the better tries from the nineties at reviving the swashbuckler) to the horse riding to the charm school coaching that a traditional adventure protagonist really needed to be someone we in the audience could look up to. That faith in tradition was both the strength of The Mask of Zorro and its drawback, for there was a difference in paying respects to what had gone before and simply reheating the clichés.
You could accuse this Zorro of not doing very much that the previous incarnations did other than increasing the scale, but with that in mind it was of worth when it was one of the last big budget movies to make a virtue of its lack of computer graphics to stage its action: what we saw were genuine stunts and setpieces performed quite often by Banderas himself, so keen was he to stick to the authenticity of the work. It also meant this Zorro was the most successful Western of the nineties unless you counted Dances with Wolves, though this paid tribute, once again, by casting L.Q. Jones in a small but showy role to wink to the fans of the genre that this was the real deal as far as its stylings went. Banderas and Jones were a spirited couple, their courtship akin to hand to hand combat, literally in one scene, and the class dimensions of the script were not ignored, more made the heart of the story when it was the poor Zorro was sworn to protect, and he certainly did that come the final confrontation with Montero’s hissable sidekick Captain Love (Matt Letscher). Maybe it was a little by the numbers, but its folkloric quality was engaging. Music by James Horner.