Screenwriting great William Goldman has opined in the past that the hardest films to get right are comedies and adventure films. An adventure film that gets things right is one of the finest things in life, I've always believed. One such film -- which I hold to be terribly underrated, and a potential classic of the adventure genre -- is the 1998 swashbuckler The Mask of Zorro. This has been a favorite of The Wife and mine ever since she and I saw it in the theater during its initial run, and we watched it with The Daughter just a week ago. We hadn't seen it in some years -- I had it on VHS, but I don't have it on DVD -- and I had forgotten just what a rock solid entertainment it is.
What struck me right at the outset about The Mask of Zorro is that it doesn't do either of the "expected" things for a big-budget flick that pretty much reintroduced a very old character to young audiences who likely had no idea who Zorro was. The film didn't just follow the adventures of an already-existent Zorro, but neither did it dwell on a long and boring origin story. Origin stories are really tough to pull off; to often, the film spends half its time on the origin and then has to compress the rest of the tale into the second half. Sometimes this works -- Superman and Spiderman both pulled it off, mainly by making the origin stuff so good -- but a lot of times it doesn't.
The Mask of Zorro escapes the horns of this dilemma by skirting between them: we open in medias res, with Zorro in full strength, pulling off a daring exploit and escaping. But he is an older Zorro, played by Anthony Hopkins (in what is a typically outstanding Anthony Hopkins performance), and he is ready to retire as Zorro, thinking that he has won and is ready to settle into his private life as Don Diego de la Vega. However, his arch-enemy, Don Rafael, has learned who he is and goes to arrest him. In the ensuing melee, de la Vega's wife is killed, and we get hints of an old love triangle between these three, even though it is never explained outright. De la Vega is taken prisoner, but Don Rafael decides to levy an even harsher punishment: he takes de la Vega's infant daughter Elena to raise as his own.
Twenty years later, de la Vega escapes from prison and is about to murder Don Rafael when he discovers that his daughter, now a grown woman, is back in California. His desire for revenge is stymied, until he comes across a much younger man, a drunken thief named Alejandro Murietta (Antonio Banderas), who has his own scores to settle and whom de la Vega can enlist to his aid and train as the new Zorro. Lots of derring-do ensues: Don Rafael's plot to become ruler of California; de la Vega's training of Alejandro; Elena's attraction to the masked outlaw she meets in passing and her growing suspicion that her past is muddier than she has known before; a soldier from the American army who is very nearly psychotic; and ultimately, de la Vega's twenty-year quest for revenge against the man who took everything from him.
What makes The Mask of Zorro so great, from a story standpoint, is the fact that there isn't a single unmotivated character in the film. Everybody has something that they're trying to achieve, something they're working toward; therefore, everyone in the film has a reason for the things they do. I never once get the feeling of plot machinery cranking away in this movie; every character wants something, and even in the cases of the villains, they want things beyond the typical "villain" things like power and money. It's always good when there is personal history between hero and villain, and yet, too many adventure films fail to take this easy step toward making their characters more three-dimensional.
The other big reasons why The Mask of Zorro works so well are the usual suspects: the performances are uniformly excellent, the pacing and editing are outstanding, James Horner's score is a blast, and Martin Campbell's direction is top-notch. The film is also notable for its lack of computer-aided action sequences; those who place value in old-school stuff like stuntmen and choreography will find much to love in The Mask of Zorro.
It's one of the best action films of the 1990s, and much better than the more famous (and more popular) The Mummy.