The Mask of Zorro, a deliciously fun 1998 film that was a solid hit but got nowhere near the acclaim it deserves. Directed by gifted genre helmer Martin Campbell, its fight scenes were overseen by legendary Hollywood swordmaster and GFS mainstay Bob Anderson. Here, Anderson channeled his vast skill in the service of creating a gloriously old-school Hollywood throwback.
And good thing, too, because as any Zorro fan can tell you, the thing that most separates him from his contemporaries and inspirations (Batman being among them) is the masked man’s sense of style. Even Robin Hood has nothing on the Z-man in that department. A consummate showman, Zorro always fights like he has an audience to entertain (and as he is a folk hero within his stories, he frequently does), and is fond of using his environment in creative ways and making fools of those who oppose him; even sillier incarnations such as the parody film Zorro The Gay Blade don’t fail to present a Zorro who’s always the coolest guy in the room.
Anderson’s staging combined with the flamboyant performances of Hopkins and Banderas (the latter of whom was said by Anderson to be the best talent he’d ever worked with) give the film a “classic” feel and it never fails to entertain. Unfortunately the movie is a bit backloaded when it comes to action; it’s not until well past the halfway point that the real joys begin, even if what precedes that is perfectly serviceable. And of course that only serves to make the payoff that much sweeter.
1) Zorro vs Don Rafael and Soldiers
- Don Diego de la Vega, aka Zorro (Spanish for “fox” in case you were wondering, gringo), a wealthy Spanish nobleman leading a double-life as the populist crusader of the title. It’s clear he’s been operating for some time now, but that’s about to come to an unfortunate end. Played by Anthony Hopkins.
- Armed with: a rapier, along with pretty much everyone else in the movie. Also has a whip, though in this movie it’s largely used as a tool rather than a weapon.
- Don Rafael Montero, the Spanish aristocrat appointed as governor of then-Spain-owned California. His oppressive policies have clearly put him at odds with Zorro. Played by Stuart Wilson, who’s fine but pales next to the original choice of master ham Armand Assante. Ah, what we missed out on!
- Armed with: rapier.
- Soldiers, less than ten or so. Under the command of Don Rafael, and none of them particularly skilled or competent. Pure cannon fodder.
- Armed with: rapiers (possibly sabers) and also some with muskets. One has a handgun.
The Setup: The beginning of Mask of Zorro practically functions as the ending– if a rather dark one– to another movie that’s not shown to the audience. Between the lengthy text prologue and the implications of the early dialogue, the audience learns that the Spanish colony of California is about to come under the control of the legendary Mexican leader Santa Anna. Montero, however, has yet to leave the soon-to-be-liberated land, in order to take one last stab at killing Zorro, who has clearly been antagonizing Rafael for some time now. Montero’s hatred for the outlaw is deep and personal.
Montero has set a trap for Zorro by organizing the public execution of three random civilians, hoping that Zorro will show up and be killed in the attempt to save them. The audience mainly sees the ensuing confrontation through the eyes of two young boys, Joaquin Murrieta (who was a real person) and his little brother Alejandro (who wasn’t), both of them big Zorro fans.
[Note that this segment combines two short fights– Zorro’s exploits at the gallows and the ensuing confrontation at his home– into one entry. This combination is done in the interest of brevity, as the two battles are both short and largely against the same foes.]
The Fight: Zorro, who arrived disguised as a hooded monk, waits until the last possible moment to interrupt the proceedings, but does so with signature style, seizing one of the firing squad’s rifles with his whip and yanking it into the guns of his compatriots so that all their shots hit their captain rather than the would-be victims. Campbell wastes no time setting up Zorro’s signature cleverness and showmanship.
The battle that follows is well-done. Zorro fends off the remaining soldiers with ease, pulling a few more tricks like escaping through the gallows’ trapdoor, impaling one guard by throwing him into a sword that become lodged in a wooden pillar, and trapping another foe inside a set of stocks (you know, these things) nearby. Hopkins and/or his stunt double make for an appropriately dashing and capable figure, even if makeup and lighting couldn’t quite conceal the actor’s age and physical condition (he was about 60 at the time of filming):
The Murrieta brothers, watching from the rooftops, spot the additional set of soldiers waiting to snipe Zorro from a nearby balcony, and foil them by pushing a statue in their direction just before they could take a rather fateful shot. Zorro shows up to thank them in person, and leaves Joaquin his signature silver medallion in gratitude. This will be important later.
Before leaving (via escape into the crowd), Zorro confronts Rafael, and leaves a signature “Z” cut on his neck, telling him to go back home to Spain and never return.
Zorro would come to regret that act of chivalric mercy, because after he rides to his lovely hacienda and attends to his wife & infant daughter, an unmasked Diego is confronted by Don Rafael and a squad or armed guards. Montero has at some point deduced his adversary’s true identity, the revelation of which must be truly cutting as it’s the same guy who married Rafael’s own unrequited love, Esperanza.
Diego, naturally, resists arrest, and after fighting some guards off a heated duel soon begins between himself and Rafael– right there on the stairs, which is always neat. Though Rafael is clearly skilled, it’s likely de la Vega would have won if not for the interference of the gun-wielding soldiers. Seeing them leveling another shot, Esperanza rushes in to defend her husband and takes a bullet in the back that was meant for him, dying instantly. Shell-shocked at his wife’s death, Diego goes down to a cheap blow to the head (courtesy of Montero) as he rushes to attend to his crying infant daughter.
Zorro is hauled off to a third-world prison with his wife dead, his daughter left to be raised by his hated enemy, his home burned with his beloved horse inside. Harsh.
Overall the action is fun but not spectacular. Zorro’s acrobatic exploits in the opening set the stage and tone for what’s to come. The music is serviceable if not soaring, and the actors are all clearly committed. All of the hero’s tricks in the beginning are well-done, but my personal favorite beat is probably Montero immediately killing the soldier who inadvertently shot Esperanza.
Coming Attractions: Proto-Zorro!