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May 13, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 13, 2006 |

Cold on the heels of 1998’s abundantly mediocre The Mask of Zorro, director Martin Campbell serves up The Legend of Zorro, an abysmal sequel full of puns, child actors, and animals acting like people. If I sound less than thrilled with the movie, I am: No one asked for this film. There hasn’t been a buzz building for years, or the kind of grassroots groundswell you might think would be responsible for prompting a sequel. Since the original film, co-stars Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones have been busy starring in films ranging from middling (Spy Kids, Intolerable Cruelty) to poor (Original Sin, Ocean’s Twelve). The time to capitalize on the original’s inexplicably positive reception would have been, like, five years ago. Oh well.

Taking a page from George Lucas’ playbook, the film opens with title cards describing the thrilling plight of California’s bid for statehood in 1850. Although it’s 1850, Lincoln makes a cameo at the end, and a bad guy inadvertently references the future president with the phrase “by the people, for the people.” The plot also centers on the impending Civil War in the young American nation, and how that war will affect history. It’s a convincing enough backdrop for a story, and an adventure with a solid political compass could do well given the current state of things. Sadly, interwoven through the history is story about a man in a cape; his two-dimensionally independent firebrand wife; his 10-year-old son, whose insults and one-liners are so scripted they make “The Cosby Show” look like “My So-Called Life”; and two villains designed to appeal to both ends of the spectrum: a French count and a religious zealot.

As far as the politics go, Zorro definitely wants California to join the Union as a free state (although the word “slavery” isn’t mentioned once in the film). He’s a fan of united government. His enemies include private detectives looking to close America’s borders, a Christian wingnut who constantly babbles about doing “the Lord’s work” while he kills local peasants, and an elite cabal determined to hijack the nation’s future from its rightful leaders. I kept expecting to see Zorro listening to NPR or dissecting the works of Howard Zinn.

Either too lazy or too unimaginative to figure out how to have Zorro (Banderas) and his wife, Elena (Zeta-Jones), work or live together, the screenwriters begin the film with their divorce. There’s actually a reason for the split revealed toward the end of the second act, but it’s pretty flimsy. Among the movie’s four writers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are responsible for the overrated Pirates of the Caribbean and its sure-to-be-boring sequels, and Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman penned The Island (ouch) and Mission: Impossible 3 (uh-oh). Coupled with Campbell, who also directed No Escape and Vertical Limit, it’s easy to see how things got off on the wrong foot.

Anyway: this guy named Armand (Rufus Sewell) moves to SoCal with dreams of hitting it big, and he’s on his way when he starts to date Zorro’s ex. But Elena and Zorro both do some digging, and it turns out that Armand is a member of a secret society called Orbis Unum, whose members are all descendants of European royalty and determined to keep their nations among the world’s strongest. So when the burgeoning United States begins to pull itself apart along the Mason-Dixon line, the Skulls, or Tritons, or whatever they’re called, step in with a plan: They’ll mine bars of soap for their glycerin, turn it into nitro and supply the Confederate army with the explosives (I know, I know, it’s the same plot as Timecop). The strengthened South will then have the advantage in the war, and the resulting power struggle will destroy the country and let Europe continue to reign. It’s up to Zorro to stop their dastardly deeds, and he does so in a climactic chase scene set atop a speeding train headed straight for Clayton Ravine, or something. Miraculously, or maybe not so much, given the out-and-out McKee stylings of the screenplay, the nitro on the train doesn’t explode until our heroes escape.

So Elena punches some people, Zorro gets in a lot of swordfights but never actually kills anyone, his kid annoys throughout, and everything turns out OK. All the good guys live. All of them. Every last one. Well, one guy dies, but we didn’t really know him. One priest even dodges death when his crucifix stops a bullet (I know, I know, the same thing happened in The Three Musketeers). But overall, things turn out remarkably well for a family of crimefighters with no modern heath care. So everyone lives, which is a sure sign that the hero here isn’t very heroic; after all, without adversity, against what is he supposed to triumph? Or am I stupid for asking that question from a movie about a man in a mask? Christopher Nolan could provide an answer, if he were here, but we’re stuck with Campbell, and all he gives us are scenes where Zorro’s horse smokes a pipe (I’m not making this up).

The Legend of Zorro is a dull and predictable movie, but that’s not to say people won’t like it. It’s got that bland, wholesome family appeal, especially in the awful scenes where Zorro Jr. tries to channel Bart Simpson. On the whole, it’s a big-budget adventure without an ounce of brain, something that no one needs to watch but that most people will eventually see. It’s just one of those movies: Complete dreck, but sadly unavoidable.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

The Legend of Zorro / Daniel Carlson

Film | May 13, 2006 |

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