Back in 1998, the previous Zorro nimbly dived into cinemas, slicing his initial into virtually everything he could find in Martin Campbell’s stonking resurrection of Johnston McCulley’s classic and the resulting adventure made me emotionally want to rear a black stallion up on it’s hind legs in front of an orange sun and yell “Ha-HAH!” until the cows came home. Of course in reality I can barely stay on a horse on a fricking carousel, but as I dutifully waited a sequel I was convinced would almost certainly come, time started to tick by and I found myself questioning whether Antonio Banderas would ever have any further adventures under that black mask that somehow has all the identity protection of Clark Kent’s glasses.
Then, suddenly, Zorro finally rode again; but seven years had elapsed since the hero sliced a letter of the alphabet into the buttocks of a screaming bandit – surely that’s a ridiculous amount of time to wait for an action sequel in a time where superhero franchises had begun to pop up all over. Did Zorro still have what it takes to still confidently crack his whip in an era where flimsy secret identities now hid awesome abilities like wall crawling or adimantium claws?
Ten years after Alejandro de la Vega took over the mantle of Zorro and settled down with his predecessor’s daughter (that sounds a little creepy when you put it like that), it seems that he has a chance to finally hang up the mask when California has the chance to join America and become a free state. But Alejandro seems reluctant to give up his dual identity which causes a huge, canyon-sized rift between him and his wife Elena who maintains that his incessant “Zorro-ing” has made him a stranger to his own, rebellious child, Joaquin. Things go from bad to worse when shifty Pinkerton agents, who have figured out Zorro’s true identity, blackmail Elena into divorcing Alejandro in order it to look like she has seemingly fallen for the lizard-like charms of the French Count Armand in order to spy in him. Unaware of this and seemingly going all out to win the Lee Marvin Award For Drunk Acting, a broken Alejandro becomes more sour than a lemon flavoured pacifier, but eventually starts to regain his mojo upon discovering a plot by a secret society to foil California’s plans for state hood by with the liberal use of nitro glycerine – something the reluctant double agent Elena has already figured out.
Can Zorro get his shit together, thwart Armand, reconcile with Elena, reconnect with his son AND save the entire state of California while seemingly having no noticeable side effects from being a mindless drunk for three whole months?
A massive let down when I first saw it, The Legend Of Zorro has improved with age but nevertheless still is light years behind it’s fiery predecessor. Bogging down the story with a secret agent plot that requires the two leads to be at each other’s throat for farcical reasons results in the film slowing down to a frustrating trot when it should be hurtling by at a spirited gallop. You’d think returning director Martin Campbell would have a tighter grip on the spy stuff considering his track record with his work on Goldeneye but he proves to have butter fingers when it comes to the comedic back and forth of Zorro and his wife bickering as they uncover an insidious plot from different ends. Why Campbell can make his action set pieces move as nimbly as a greased whippet but then has the scenes of farce drag on like an arthritic tortoise, I’m not entirely sure as the two things are surely not that different to stage but you start to feel the two hour plus running time as things grind on.
The movie kind of does it’s characters dirty too with Catherine Zeta Jones’ Elena saddled with the exact same thankless plot device that hampered Kirsten Dunst in the Spider-Man movies where she has the (not entirely unreasonable) demand that Alejandro give up his heroing in order to help raising his son. Women in blockbusters never seem to come off particularly well when hampered with this role and often end up being portrayed as an unreasonable nag despite the actress rolling up her sleeves and getting stuck into all the crime fighting in the final reel.
A third element that pulls Zorro’s mask over his eyes is the subplot of de la Vega struggling to bond with his 10 year old tear-away of a kid who, while thankfully staying on the right side of precocious, slows the plot down even further and (ironically) feels too far divorced from the central plot to be vital despite the character showing some burgeoning mad Zorro skills despite having absolutely no training whatsoever. Apparently Alejandro and Elena’s genes are so strong their ten year old has Batman levels of physical prowess that noone knows about…
Even Antonio Banderas’ weapons grade charisma and impeccable comic timing can’t elevate the fact that Alejandro becomes a massive piece of shit once he hits the bottle. I’m all for bringing your hero down to his knees in order to create dramatic tension, Daniel Craig’s Bond, for example, amassed emotional breaks like a child hoarding Pokémon cards, but here it’s just one flaw too many and feels way too abusive to comfortably score as comedy.
The patented lifeless features of Rufus Sewell manages to install some suave wrongdoing into proceedings although despite the fact that with his gadget carrying henchman and his plan to effect world events makes him a Bond villian born in the wrong era, he doesn’t provide as an emotional counterpoint to the baby snatching villainy of Stuart Wilson from the first film; or the head pickling lunacy of his henchman for that matter. However, Campbell – like Zorro himself – mercifully regains his mojo in the vast action sequences that bookend the movie which are loaded with derring do and suprisingly brutal incident that strain the PG rating to it’s limit. Included in the rousingly tactile violence is a running gag that sees Nick Chinlund’s bible thumping henchman have his teeth repeatedly smashed out and the final sequence set aboard a runaway train is honestly fucking awesome as all the de la Vega’s finally start working together before the guy on set in charge of explosions gets to awesomely earn his paycheck plus bonuses…
Decent enough to avoid being written off entirely, yet annoyingly flawed enough to bury a promising franchise, if you really wanted to forge a trilogy out of this, I guess an aging Banderas could teach his grown and estranged son the ways of sword based penmanship (stranger things have happened), but The Legend Of Zorro may have been tarnished too much to warrant any further outings as it’s swash has well and truly buckled.