friday night movie club

Why Can’t Every Movie Be As Good As The Mask of Zorro?

I went into the 1998 film dreading what Hollywood would do to it. Now it feels like the kind of thing for which we used to keep Hollywood around. Photo: Sony Pictures Releasing

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from film critic Bilge Ebiri, who will begin his screening of The Mask of Zorro on May 22 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch his live commentary, and look ahead at next week’s movie here.

I don’t know how exactly it happened, but sometime in the 1990s, Hollywood rediscovered the swashbuckler. Maybe it started with the somewhat unlikely (and slightly ridiculous) success of 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or maybe it dated back to 1987’s The Princess Bride. Or maybe it was a natural result of the search for reinvention-friendly throwbacks that the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies had prompted. But soon enough, we were getting … well, not exactly a stream, but certainly a steady trickle of period films in which characters drew swords. Stephen Herek’s Three Musketeers came in 1993. Michael Caton-Jones’s Rob Roy came in 1995. Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans (1992) is more about tomahawks and muskets and Colonial history than it is about swords, but it still fits many of the requirements of the genre. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) is also not really a swashbuckler in execution, but if it had been made in 1946, it totally would have been.

Having spent years in development and been passed among different writers and directors before its 1998 release, The Mask of Zorro (which recently came out in a lovely new 4K edition) arrived late in the cycle.  And, frankly, nobody thought it was going to be a hit. I’m not sure even the filmmakers did. We certainly didn’t think it was going to be good. It reeked of desperation, of a studio trying to mine a quaint old property so they could “Hollywoodize” it. I was sure Zorro’s sword was going to explode at some point.

And then the damn thing opened, and it ruled. For starters, the premise was a clever one: The original Zorro, don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) has grown old and bitter, and recruits ragged thief Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) to carry on his legacy, help him avenge the death of his wife, and save his kidnapped, now fully grown daughter (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Thus, we watch the somewhat hapless Alejandro “become” Zorro through training and trial and error, which lets the film be an origin story without trying to reinvent the wheel.

Of course, Zorro, a mysterious Mexican nobleman who wears a black mask over his eyes to protect his identity while he fights for justice, has more than a few similarities with Bruce Wayne, and the Batman story owes a huge, acknowledged debt to Johnston McCulley’s original pulp creation. In most depictions of Bruce Wayne’s parents’ death, the family has just emerged from watching a Zorro movie. Interestingly, Christopher Nolan did away with the Zorro reference in Batman Begins — the Waynes are at the opera, watching Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele instead — but he clearly borrowed the spirit of The Mask of Zorro, with its long scenes of a young man being trained in the arts of combat by an older master. It makes sense as an immediately accessible and relatable way into an otherwise absurd superhero story.

We should also not have doubted Martin Campbell, a director who had already successfully rebooted the James Bond series with GoldenEye (and who would do so again, in spectacular fashion, with 2006’s Casino Royale). For Zorro, he had been a relatively late replacement for Robert Rodriguez. (By the way, I would still love to see a Robert Rodriguez take on Zorro.) Upon arrival, Campbell had the story and the script revamped. I don’t know what specific changes were made, but the director has always had a fondness for films that fit the rough outlines of a revenge picture: His characters are often fueled by terrible, shocking loss. In Zorro, don Diego watches his wife get murdered. Not long after, Alejandro (Banderas) sees his own brother get beheaded. (It gets even gnarlier later, when Alejandro is forced to drink the brine in which his brother’s head is being pickled.)  These aren’t uncommon tropes in action movies, but Campbell reinvests them with real passion and rage. His films are fun, but the emotional devastation is always there, and by the end, you’re as out for blood as the characters are.

Campbell also brought an eye for clear, compelling action: One of the challenges of this sort of film is to make sure the action remains swift yet coherent, the spatial dynamics consistent and interesting. With sword fights, one part of this challenge becomes easier: The fighting is usually done by two people, relatively close to one another, so it’s easy to follow. But another part becomes even harder: How do you keep things moving and changing, so that we don’t feel like we’re just watching a static shot of two stuntmen going at it? Campbell understands that what we’re watching has to be thrilling, fun, elegant, and clear. His direction is efficient, but it doesn’t skimp on the humor or the grace notes. It helps of course to have a charmer like Banderas, a hunk at ease with comedy and unafraid to let himself look ridiculous. And it helps to have the kind of chemistry that Banderas has with Zeta-Jones, who was a relative newcomer at the time; the film immediately made her a star.

It’s weird. I went into The Mask of Zorro back in 1998 dreading what Hollywood would do to it. Now it feels like the kind of thing that we kept Hollywood around for. When I watch it today, I find myself lamenting a certain kind of big, fun, firing-on-all-cylinders studio epic — romantic, lush, transporting, exciting — that it’s hard to find nowadays. (Maybe I’ll feel that way in 20 years about [insert big contemporary hit here].) Its fellow sorta-swashbuckler, Last of the Mohicans, is also one such picture. As is, come to think of it, Rob Roy. These are the kinds of movies that make you wonder why other movies can’t be as good.

The Mask of Zorro is available to stream with a subscription to Netflix, and is available to rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu. It was also recently released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and Digital.

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Why Can’t Every Movie Be As Good As The Mask of Zorro?