California, 1850. Alejandro de la Vega (Banderas), the man behind the mask of outlaw champion Zorro, seems to lose his beloved wife Elena (Zeta-Jones) to a scheming French aristocrat, and sinks into drunken despair just as his skills are needed to defend the still-emergent United States.
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Sometimes sequels go wrong because some of the key principles who made the first film work are unwilling to return for another go-around, giving rise to limp outings like Son Of The Mask, Speed 2: Cruise Control or xXx: State Of The Union. Sometimes, everyone signs up again but the fizz has gone and you get mild disappointments like Men In Black II and Ghostbusters II. The Legend Of Zorro is squarely in the second camp, which should keep it off the year’s worst film lists, but still means that a couple of months from now you’ll barely remember it exists.
Martin Campbell’s The Mask Of Zorro, which came out in 1998, was a canny rethink of the long-standing heroic character. Positioning itself as a sequel to the often-remade The Mark Of Zorro, it brought on Anthony Hopkins as the aged version of Don Diego de la Vega — the original don-by-day/outlaw-by-night hero of Spanish California — but passed the torch (and the mask) to the earthier, peasant-born Alejandro, played with all the smoulder Antonio Banderas could summon in the late ’90s. This cleverly brought back all the things we love about Zorro, but made him a more down-to-earth, less privileged character. Now, a decade on in plot terms, we find Alejandro has almost forgotten his origins and the script doesn’t even mention that he isn’t the original Zorro — and Banderas’ smoulder has, if not burned out, at least turned down the heat a few degrees too many.
The opening raises the spirits, with a nice introduction for the hero as he casts his vote (with a Z, instead of a cross) in the election which will decide whether California joins the United States, and then sees off a bullying preacher and his band of baddies in a perfectly-judged bit of swashbuckling on a half-built bridge. Then the plot sets in and the tone starts to waver drastically. The previous film got Alejandro together with the fiery Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and now they have a chipmunk-cheeked son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), who idolises the mysterious adventurer Zorro but thinks his father is a cowardly bore. Elena serves Alejandro with divorce papers (in 1850!) and hooks up with the smarmy Count Armand (all-purpose baddie Rufus Sewell), who claims he wants to found the California wine industry but is actually part of
a conspiracy to launch a terror strike against Washington and kick off the American Civil War ten years early (anyone interested in history will need some smelling salts about now).
The problem is that we want a Zorro who dazzles with swordplay, wit and romantic ardour, but Legend gives us a Zorro who becomes a maudlin drunk when ditched and spends most of the second act moaning, then gets back into action in scenes with too many cheap slapstick gags to be really exciting. Neither star does much more than touch base with their established character, and we spend entirely too much time with the annoying little Joaquin.
If the series wants to become a franchise, a rethink and new blood will be necessary — maybe Banderas can get mortally wounded in reel one of The Son Of Zorro, passing on the mask and sword to, say, Gael García Bernal.
Undemanding Saturday-matinee action fun in Old California, but hardly a hot-ticket holiday blockbuster.
Reviewed by Kim Newman