Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:15 - Released 7/17/98

Okay. I admit it. I'm an Anthony Hopkins fan. Hopkins seems to elevate just about any picture he's in, from The Lion In Winter (1968) to The Elephant Man (1980) to The Silence of the Lambs (1991) to last year's Amistad. Though The Mask Of Zorro is definitely not his best work, he lends a credibility to even an overblown superhero flick like this. Without him, this would be an adequately exciting action film. But his presence makes it more important than that. The man is an actor.

If Hopkins makes the story important, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones make it sexy. Their mutual attraction is thick from the start, and the fact that they're both so easy on the eyes doesn't hurt. The mood is well captured by the beating sun and the recurring strains of "Malagueña." The heat, the dust, and the political tension of mid-19th Century California are intense. And that is thanks to director Martin Campbell.

As the film begins, Mexico (which includes the California territory) is poised to wrest itself free of Spain's political influence. The heartless Spanish governor, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), has set a trap for the masked man who continually vexes the oppresive government. Just when Montero is about to execute three innocent peasants, Zorro (Hopkins) appears and saves them, to the cheers of the grateful populace. But he is soon captured and imprisoned, and his cherished baby daughter Elena stolen, to be reared by Montero. Zorro's real identity is Don Diego de la Vega, a landowner who betrayed his counterparts on behalf of the poverty-stricken people, and therefore is branded a traitor to his class.

After twenty years has passed with de la Vega in prison, he escapes and meets a petty criminal named Alejandro Murrieta (Banderas), whose brother has been killed by Montero's army commander, Captain Harrison Love (Matthew Letscher). Alejandro has sworn a vendetta to Captain Love, but lacks the control to carry it out. Desperate to find the now adult Elena (Zeta-Jones), de la Vega decides to teach Alejandro the ways of the masked avenger, and the two form a friendship.

Knowing Hopkins's age and the roles he has performed, it is rather amusing to see him in the opening scenes of this movie, wearing his cape and buckling his swash. I could not help being reminded of William Shatner, still trying to be sexy as Captain Kirk after all these years. The sideburns undoubtedly added to this similarity. But he is classy and venerable as the older Zorro, and Banderas provides an apt contrast, being young and impetuous, full of dash. There is humor ever-present in the script, written by Terry Rossio & Ted Elliott and John Eskow, and the action is overdone, as is appropriate for the style. Wilson and Letscher provide adequately two-dimensional villains, and Zeta-Jones, as expected, is a knockout.

The fact that most of the events in this film are unlikely if not impossible doesn't really matter. Even though one can't really leap onto the back of a horse from two stories above or fight off a dozen armed soldiers using nothing but a whip, Zorro is like Superman; he is not supposed to be realistic. So with that in mind, I found the film a lot of fun and full of energy. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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