Saturday, August 28, 2021

Return to Swashbuckle Watch: The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Watched:  08/27/2021
Format:  Amazon Prime
Viewing:  Unknown
Decade:  1990's
Director:  Martin Campbell

Having had just watched 1940's The Mark of Zorro, it seemed like a good idea to check out other iterations of the character.  I've been watching episodes of the low-budget 1990's TV show, but the last big splash Zorro made at cinemas were the two films starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The Mask of Zorro (1998) came out just as I graduated college, and was considered kind of a minor action triumph at the time of its release.  It doesn't speak to the future of superhero film, instead playing like the best of the best of the pulp-hero films of the 1990's, but this movie and it's sequel The Legend of Zorro, spoke to the weird world building and return to franchises that would become a staple of media by the 2010's.  

For some reason, this movie is about Don Diego de la Vega failing and the shenanigans coming to an end, with two decades spent in a jail cell.  It's frankly a lazy and unbelievable scenario that Don Rafael would not have seen Zorro killed, as bloodthirsty as this film portrays its villains, but it does prop up the rest of the story - which also doesn't make a ton of sense.  In the melee, Don Diego sees his wife accidentally shot, and Rafael yoinks the baby, taking her with him as he runs off to Spain as the Mexican Revolution of 1821 will unseat him and possibly see him killed by revolutionaries.  

Flash forward 20 years, and Rafael returns to California with the daughter (Zeta-Jones) in tow.  de la Vega escapes prison (now?  It sure seems easy enough), and partners with a bandit (Banderas), training him to become the new Zorro.  In, I think, a week.  

Man, he learns a lot in a week.  Usually people take years to become master swordsmen, but not THIS guy!  Jumping!  Flipping!  Horse stunts!  The works!  In, like, a week!  

Don Rafael's plot actually feels darkly realistic in some ways.  Plotting ne'er-do-wells trying to seize Mexican territory is one way to look at Texas history.  He's mining gold out of California that Mexico City doesn't yet know is there, and when the gold is ready, he'll use it to buy California from Mexico for himself using gold that seems to have come from Spain thanks to a faked seal.  

The *historical problem* with the plot is that it would need to occur 25 years after 1821.  The argument is that Mexico needs money to fight the Mexican American War, but that didn't start until 1846, and it wouldn't be clear for a bit how expensive this war would be (also, Zeta-Jones is clearly not 20 years old in this movie).

Not that there weren't constant problems for General Antonia Lopez de Santa Anna for... decades.  But in 1841 - selling off California probably wasn't on the menu.  And in 1846 or 1847, giving Spain a back door to Mexico or anyone probably would have seemed like a pretty bad idea.  One thing Mexico did not need was more potential adversaries as the country roiled from the inside as well as dealing with the US.

But gold is some persuasive stuff.

That said - the gold would have better suited Rafael in mustering a local army, driving out the garrison and just claiming California before it would be lost to the US by 1848.  I have no idea how he plans to actually run his Republic of California minus all that gold to pay soldiers.  I probably overthought all of this.


The action in this movie is incredible.  I haven't seen anything like it in years, and I'd very much like to see it again.  One neat thing about Zorro is that he's a guy in a mask, so if you can find stunt people, you can make a movie with Zorro jumping from rooftop to rooftop and STANDING ON HORSES or fencing like a maniac.  

I love my Captain Marvel-style action.  It's kinda cathartic to watch Carol punch through spaceships with her fists, but it's just as thrilling to see flesh and bone people perform incredible feats and take on swarms of soldiers with sabers, swinging from ropes and whatnot.  This movie absolutely kicks-ass in the action department, and knows that's why it exists.  

Banderas is - honestly - a lot of fun in this movie.  The film can't help itself showing Zorro having issues with the new horse-pal, Tornado (this feels so, so 1990's), and goofing in general.  But if we ignore that his character crams in 20 years of study into a week, he nails everything, from grimy bandit to suave Caballero, and absolutely rocks the attitude needed for a Zorro to work.  

By 1998, Banderas was fully established as a star and action star (thanks, Desperado!), and we were well into the decade in which Anthony Hopkins was in practically anything.  He's great!  I just don't buy blue-eyed, baritone-voiced Hopkins was Zorro and nobody sorted it out.  I do buy his almost Poe-like well-nurtured fury at Don Rafael and how it's twisted back on his own past and the people.  That's some dark stuff, as is kidnapping someone's kid.  

But that also leaves an open question of Elena's wildly shifting allegiances in this movie.  Like, she is totally ready to throw over the man she's known as a sole parent her whole life - who seems to have been a pretty good parent, tbh -  buying the story of an ex-con and a smooth bandit.  

I'd argue this movie made Zeta-Jones.  It was NOT her role in The Phantom a couple years prior (but I did remember her).  She's great.  Does her best with a Spanish accent (which Hopkins can't be bothered with).  And to say the camera doesn't love her is a damnable lie.

But Zorro has an Anglo-racism problem, as did the 1990's.  Both Hopkins and Zeta-Jones are Welsh.  Arguably Don Diego is Spanish, not Mexican.  But Elena is the child of Diego and a California-born Mexican.  Banderas - Spanish, not Mexican, when his character is clearly born locally.  I'm not going to drag Zeta-Jones.  This was how things were done in this period, and she took a job.  But...  Really?  No Latina actresses who could nail lines like "But, Father...!"  

I'll just say:  I'd be very curious what Zorro would look like in 2021 directed by actual California-born Hispanics.  

I made mention in discussing The Mark of Zorro that Zorro seemed almost incidentally a "man of the people", but the neat thing about the story here is that he is 100% of and for the people.  There's no patrician "yeah, yeah... the people, too".  Banderas' Zorro is certainly motivated by revenge at the death of his brother, but he starts the movie as someone forced to desperate circumstances and is aware he should be one of the people working in the mine.  It gives a healthy promise that the new Zorro of the 1840's will be one who won't hang it up because he killed the baddies.  He's going to be ready to be the Zorro who shows up whomever the next bully is who rolls into town.

This movie does predict films like Logan, which would see a hero at the end of his time.  I do recall my surprise seeing this the first time and really getting that Hopkins was the Zorro I'd known up until this point, and we were doing a generational story.  It also predicts the "let's jump forward 30 years and return to a property people know" thing that's the current cultural obsession (I, myself, am still in support of some of these, like Twin Peaks' unlikely return).  Others, less so.  But I can't really recall another film that did this before Mask of Zorro.

The movie generated a sequel I remember mostly for Zeta-Jones taking up arms, but reviews appear to not have been kind, and my own memory is so fuzzy of the film, I'm guessing I ejected the movie from the memory banks for more useful things.  All that's left is a general sense of "meh".  

Look, the interesting thing about this movie is that it's left over from the era of "eh, it doesn't matter how we get there, let's just get there" that was very common to action movies and endemic to anything resembling comics-type-stuff.  This approach would get eviscerated online today by bored 19 year olds with anime character profile pics.  And I can't say, in some ways, that the need to make sure your story is tight is a bad thing.  The laziness of spectacle over substance (or cohesiveness) is what always gave your local reviewers a pass to just rate movies on entertainment value (and this one did okay, if memory serves) but to sneer at giving the movies credit or include them as a legitimate part of the conversation on "film".  

I'm not sure people of my own age have quite grokked that this problem isn't as bad as it used to be, or at least these movies make as much sense as *other* movies.  We're still carrying the cultural load we inherited, and the movies don't always help themselves.  

But when I sit down to write about a movie I just enjoyed, I don't enjoy thinking of all the galaxy-wide plotholes that were probably all pretty fixable or never needed to happen.  (Are you REALLY going to blow up a working gold mine no one knows about?  And.. why?).  

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