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'The Mask Of Zorro' Is Everything A Summer Movie Should Be.

By Tom Danehy

JULY 27, 1998: 

A VARIETY OF reasons why The Mask of Zorro may well be one of the best movies you'll see this entire summer:

1. It's summer, dummy. Summer movies are aimed at the groins and optic nerves of 14-year-old boys. Name a great summer-release movie from the past decade. (Okay, Lone Star. Now name another.) You don't have to work very hard to be one of the best movies of a certain summer. And this summer seems even more dismal than usual.

However, this understanding of movie-quality relativity should not serve to damn Zorro with faint praise, because it's a hoot--a jaunty action flick with clever dialogue, a pleasant dearth of special effects, jaw-dropping stunts, and not one, but two, Zorros to root for. And root we do.

2. Anthony Hopkins. The Oscar-winner has been playing the Serious Actor for the past several years, but with last year's The Edge and now Zorro, he's finally shown his willingness to stray a bit. He's absolutely delightful here as the real Zorro, an aging Don Diego whose life has been ruined by the splendidly evil Don Rafael (Stuart Wilson).

Hopkins is wonderful as the beaten-down-but-not-beaten, angry-but-not-reckless former hero who still has a lot of heroism left in him. He steals this movie with an effortlessness reminiscent of the casual thievery perpetrated by Sean Connery over Harrison Ford in the last Indiana Jones movie.

Two decades earlier, Rafael killed Don Diego's wife, whom the scoundrel loved but couldn't have. He then kidnapped the couple's infant daughter to raise as his own, and, for good measure, saw to it that Don Diego would spend the next 20 years or so in prison.

Well, Don Diego is back and he's found the perfect student to mold into his successor. The petty thief Alejandro (played with a winning absence of macho posturing by Antonio Banderas) has his own reasons for going after Don Rafael, not the least of which is the stunning Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), all grown up into a real pistol of a woman.

Even the aforementioned 14-year-olds will see early on that Elena will eventually find Dad and amor behind the two masks of Zorro; but getting there is a great ride, filled with surprising humor, dazzling action sequences, and characters whom we care about despite their almost cartoonishly delineated goodness.

3. It's not Armageddon, on a variety of levels. Those of us who staggered out of the asteroid flick with a Yeah, and...? attitude realize that computer-generated special effects have painted filmmakers into a corner. We've seen it all and we don't want to see any more.

Zorro gives us things we haven't seen in a while: killer stunts, for one. This may be hopelessly retro, but watch some of these tricks and then tell me you aren't amazed by the magic of movie making.

Even though we know these guys are professional stunt people, we also know they must be some bad-ass stunt people. There have been some great individual stunts in movies over the past decade, but I haven't seen this many great ones in a single movie since The Road Warrior in the mid-1980s.

It also doesn't have a humorless Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton with a false gravity borrowed from Mir, and Liv Tyler, the absolute poster child for Over-Rated. Sure, Armageddon had Steve Buscemi, the King of Creepy, but that's just not enough.

4. Not much competition at all. Look at what it's up against in the theaters:

  • The X-Files: Could've been a contender in the sexy chemistry department, but sissied out and interrupted The Kiss with an alien bee sting?!

  • Dr. Dolittle: Ferrets with filthy mouths? Yeah, that's funny the first eight or nine times, but then what?

  • Small Soldiers: Small plot, small expectations, big waste of time.

  • Six Days, Seven Nights: Chemistry? They don't even have biology. We're supposed to be surprised that Anne Heche will leave David Schwimmer for Harrison Ford? Who wouldn't?

  • Lethal Weapon 4: I love this series, but the new installment has been out two weeks and even I haven't bothered to check it out. Can we say "tired?"

  • Out Of Sight: Only Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney match the on-screen sizzle of the Zorro pairing of Zeta-Jones and Banderas. And while the former make sparks fly in the trunk of a car, we get to watch the latter in a dazzling dance scene and a sexy duel of strip sword-fighting.

5. Lastly, The Mask of Zorro is just plain fun. It's a film made with zeal and style.

And more than anything, it's a pleasant surprise. After dozens of movies and TV appearances, it appeared that the Zorro franchise was long dead. That the people involved in this project could breathe new life into their characters is to their credit.

This isn't a great movie. It's probably a bit too long and it sometimes tries too hard to pay homage to other action movies. But it certainly fits the bill for what a summer movie should be.

These days there are only two ways for a movie to succeed: Either promote it to death in the front end and hope for a huge opening weekend (Godzilla, Armageddon); or make a good movie, put it out there and hope it lasts long enough in the theaters to create a buzz (Out of Sight).

Zorro is going to have to take that second route. If it can draw people into the theater, they'll leave happy.

Of course, there's always the chance that the target audience of 14-year-old guys will get a glimpse of Zeta-Jones and start a buzz of their own. Optic nerves and groins, indeed.

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