Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas in Columbia Pictures' The Legend of Zorro - 2005
I knew I was in trouble when, prior to our hero’s first appearance in this week’s big budget sequel, The Legend of Zorro, the villain, a pseudo-religious psychopath with a big fake looking cross scar on his cheek, rides out and begins to fire his rifle repeatedly into a crowd of innocents, shooting off hat after hat. You could almost hear the “bad guy music” in the background; Dum-de-dum-dum! When Zorro arrives to save the day, it’s all cocky smiles and silly antics. It’s as if this is such old hat to him, that it’s all just a big joke. But the joke’s on the audience.
It’s 1850, and California is vying for statehood. But when the evil Jacob McGivens (the aforementioned scarface) tries to hijack the vote, it’s up to Zorro to stop him, knocking out his teeth and leaving him with a face full of prickly pear in the process. Yikes! Zorro, or Alejandro, as he’s known about town, is on the verge of retirement, but just can’t seem to put the mask down, especially when California is so close to joining the Union. But his wife Elena is having none of his excuses. Their son is now ten (just born at the end of the first film) and is showing signs of his father’s exuberant ways, even though he knows nothing of his true patronage. Abruptly, Elena, under duress from a pair of mysterious government agents, decides to divorce Alejandro and go under cover to expose a wicked french wine maker who is also a secret knight of something or other bent upon a one-world government, and is willing to help the Confederacy blow up Washington in order to break up the United States of America. Meanwhile, Zorro is working on a similar lead, though more spurred on by jealousy at seeing his ex-wife out in public with said villainous Frenchman. And all this is framed by the antics of the young Joaquin De La Vega, an intrepid champion of the poor and oppressed and a gratingly irritation addition to the cast. The incredibly complicated plot does little to help the film, especially as the dialogue, music, and action often feels ripped from a Saturday morning cartoon.
In 1998, Martin Cambell, director of Goldeneye and numerous other, grittier, movies, brought us a great swashbuckler in The Mask of Zorro. Antonio Banderas was great - charming, brooding, physical; the perfect embodiment of the legendary Mexican hero. Catherine Zeta Jones was introduced to the world in what was not her first, but by far her most dynamic role to date: the daring and beautiful Elena De la Vega. When, at the end of the movie, Zorro and Elena are married, we just knew we were in for a series of terrific proportions. And then, nothing. It’s hard to figure out why. If you read the interviews it’s all about “we were waiting for just the right script,” but I can’t imagine that this was the one they ended up with. Full of historical inaccuracies and glaring suspensions of disbelief, the film feels as though it was made for a pre-teen audience.
The film is rated PG, and deservedly so. There is very little here visually, that a parent would need to be concerned about. Some cartoon violence, but very few deaths, almost no blood, though plenty of kicks to the crotch. There’s no sex, and almost no language. But there’s almost no substance either. And what little substance there is, is wrong. To run down a list of the specific inaccuracies in the film would take a double review, but suffice it to say that the Confederacy was not an entity in 1850, and even if it had been, it was never in league with an evil European cabal. Divorce was uncommon in the nineteenth century and would certainly not have been conducted as flippantly as it is in the film. The quantities of nitro-glycerin, a little known compound at the time, used in the film are ridiculous. And one of the most glaring errors, Abraham Lincoln was not president in 1850, nor would he have been anywhere near the statehood ceremony for California. On a slightly different tack, I was incredibly irritated by the use of horses in the film. We’ve all seen horse tricks in the movies, and even though they’re not “true to life”, we don’t mind. But I draw the line at the assumption that horses are brainless. The characters in this film treat their horses like a car or a motorcycle, running them through brick walls and sidewalk stands, and jumping them onto moving trains. This isn’t a trick pony, this is just fake, and it rings false. For a children’s movie, this may seem like nitpicking (all except the Abe Lincoln thing. They should know that.) but I didn’t go to this film to see a children’s movie.
Zorro’s main problem is that it spends so much time playing to the kids, that it loses its sense of time and place. This is a period piece, but it plays like it’s taking place in 2005, with liberated women and fast cars. Banderas and Zeta Jones are still good, but they’ve been given so little to work with that it’s a wonder they were able to work at all. I was entertained sporadically, but at over two hours, the family-friendly-fun began to wear thin. I’d be in favor of a Zorro 3, but only if we can be assured that it can do a little growing up between now and then. Grade: C
The Legend of Zorro is rated PG for cartoon violence and mild language.
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