For years, Zorro (Antonio Banderas) has been protecting his people from danger. However, on the eve of California's ratification to join the United States, Zorro is pestered to settle down by his wife, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones, returning with her immaculate lighting), and finds he has no relationship with his son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). The arrival of a Frenchman, Armand (Rufus Sewell), brings sinister plans to California, and exacerbates the floundering marriage between Zorro and Elena, as they separate to investigate Armand's plans for his new home. Finding he can't throw away his legend as easily as he thought, Zorro rides again to save California at her most important hour.
After seven years of consideration, I still can't quite put my finger on what held "The Mask of Zorro" back from becoming a dazzling blockbuster. It was a respectable movie, crammed with handsome performances, and it gave birth to a true leading lady. "Mask" also remains one of the most lavishly photographed pictures of the 1990s, but it lacked a spark when it needed it the most. After waiting an unusual amount of time for a sequel, "The Legend of Zorro" (IMDb listing) comes galloping to the big screen, and it seems that the production didn't learn from the original's mistakes.
While an all-around success, "Mask" didn't quite break through in America, where a box office blitz seemed inevitable in the summer of 1998. Wanting to forgo a repeat of domestic financial mediocrity, the producers have changed two elements in the sequel: for starters, the film is rated PG, which means that the cartoonish nature of Zorro's antics have been amplified, and the true grime of the violence has been dialed way down (no more severed-head-in-a-jar cocktails either). "Mask" was hardly a blood feast, but "Legend" is very cautious to draw a heavy line between swashbuckle and stabs-a-lot, which works in the film's favor when it seeks to convey adventure, but hurts when it comes to showing what Zorro does best in the bookending stunt set pieces. Not much has been neutered in "Legend," but the air of danger has been silently sucked out of this sequel in the hopes of bringing more children (and the contents of their cute little wallets) in on the fun.
Also new to the franchise is the addition of Zorro's kid. Forgive me for thinking out loud here, but this is a film called "Zorro," right? Why would the lead character have to compete not only with a severely beefed up role for Elena (since Zeta-Jones went from nobody to Oscar winner in the ensuing season), but now his wiseacre, high-flipping kid? While nicely performed by Adrian Alonso, the character is more of a nuisance than a reasonable dramatic arc for Zorro, and he acts as a doorway for little kids to bond with the action. It's just another way to distance the two films and move this one toward more universal appeal. This dumbing down element also comes into play with Tornado, Zorro's horse. Once a faithful steed, Tornado is now strictly comic relief in the new film, showing him drinking booze, smoking pipes, and burping. Now there's an idea that should've stayed in the screenwriter's head.
That's not to say "Legend" is completely devoid of merit. Returning director Martin Campbell seems to get a real thrill out of arranging the action sequences, playing with classic set-ups (a runaway train sequence is a doozy) and utilizing high-flying theme park stuntshow choreography that keeps the action entertaining. And the actors display pure joy stepping back into these parts; Banderas especially, in what is arguably the best role of his career. Getting to dip his fingers enthusiastically in action, drama, and romantic comedy, Banderas is always a pleasure to watch, and his chemistry with Zeta-Jones is terrific. It's a shame the script separates the two almost immediately so they can run around the film's inexplicably intricate story (which also kept the original film from soaring).
Dismiss this as a nit-pick if you like, but one little thing I loved in "Mask" was the piercing, ringing metal clank of swords smashing, as heard in the duels. The sound effect doesn't quite come back in the sequel. In fact, it sounds like the foley artist is smacking aluminum spoons together instead this time around. A disappointment.
While there's no crime in trying to aim for a hit, the Zorro character deserves much better than what "Legend" has to offer. In what should've been Antonio Banderas's finest hour as the Mexican superhero, he is instead swallowed up by a second film that doesn't know what to do with him.
Filmfodder Grade: C+