The Hero with a Thousand (Masked) Faces
The Mask of Zorro is a movie to remind you what Hollywood used to be: a dream factory whose uncynical and unhyperbolic entertainments could sweep you up into the screen and make you forget yourself and the real world for two hours. The last movie to be this viscerally exciting and satisfying is probably Raiders of the Lost Ark — and the last movie this charming and delightful must be The Princess Bride.
I feel like the grandfather in The Princess Bride recommending S. Morgenstern’s book to his grandson. The Mask of Zorro has it all: Murder! Revenge! Sword fighting! Thievery! Revolution! Giants! Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) fought oppression and defended peasants as Zorro in his younger days, but now he’s passing the mantle (à la The Princess Bride‘s dread pirate Roberts) to Alejandro Murieta (Antonio Banderas). Both have some avenging to catch up on: Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), governor of California, murdered de la Vega’s wife and threw de la Vega in prison for twenty years, and Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher) murdered Alejandro’s brother and keeps his head in a jar (no kidding!).
There are also oppressed peasants to save — they’re being forced to work a gold mine for Montero and Love, part of their nefarious plan to buy California from Mexico. My Fair Lady style, de la Vega transforms Alejandro from an unsophisticated rogue and outlaw into a fighter and a gentleman who can pass among Montero’s crowd with ease — which also gives him the opportunity to woo Montero’s daughter, the ravishing and “wild at heart” Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Like The Princess Bride, The Mask of Zorro is a kissing book — in the best possible way. Here’s a film — all too rare today — that knows that sexy is all in your head. Banderas and Zeta-Jones convince you with the longing in their eyes that they can’t wait to get their hands on each other, and watching them exchanging witty, flirty banter and stealing kisses is a hell of a lot sexier than watching two naked, sweaty, grunting bodies performing a mechanical act. Oh, there’s lots sexy in The Mask of Zorro, but nothing that you couldn’t let a grade schooler watch.
An action movie without special effects? Nary a one to be found here. All the gorgeous sunsets and beautiful locations were found in nature, and all the spectacular stunts are performed by live human beings — I’d forgotten how much more organic and real it all looks when there are no computers in the mix.
The Mask of Zorro satisfies on an intellectual level, too. You don’t need to know who Joseph Campbell is to appreciate the mythic scale of Alejandro’s journey from pupil to master or to feel that this kind of hero’s journey story just resonates more and feels more right than, say, a tale of a bunch of guys blowing up an asteroid.
From the moment the James Bond-esque opening sequence lit up the theater — a silhouetted Zorro slashing a Z in the screen — I smelled a franchise here. At least I hope I do. I could do with another one of these in the summer of 2000.