STARRING: ANTONIO BANDERAS, ANTHONY HOPKINS, CATHERINE ZETA-JONES 137 MINS
Now that most of the Marvel Comic standards have been used up, Hollywood is obliged to scout further into its own past for action heroes. While few will recall Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro in the 1920 silent film, the idea of a black-caped freedom fighter with the signature slashed Z always looked ripe for a modern makeover. Martin Campbell's lavish rendering of the Man in the Mask is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and positively revels in its magpie pick'n'mix composition. Indeed, the sense of deja vu will be overpowering to anyone who has seen an action adventure movie in the last 20 years.
The setting is Los Angeles in the 1840s. Twenty years previously Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) was unmasked as the legendary swordsman Zorro and thrown into jail by the former Spanish governor, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), who had his adversary's wife murdered, his infant daughter abducted and his property burned. Now Zorro has escaped, but being a bit long in the tooth to resume his battle with the forces of oppression, he seeks a pupil to continue the struggle. Meanwhile, a swarthy bandit named Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) is reeling drunkenly around town vowing to avenge the murder of his brother. What does he know of sword-fighting? Only that "the pointy end goes into the other man" - on which assurance Zorro decides that he has found his successor.
Hopkins, with his grey locks and wise eyes, appropriately has the look of a latter-day Merlin, a magician who will initiate his charge into the mysteries of swordplay, plus all the right-on stuff like duty, honour and table manners. The film proceeds to tip its hat to a variety of other influences: the vast cavern where Zorro trains Alejandro recalls nothing so much as the Bat Cave, and the master-acolyte relationship of Batman to Robin was also characterised by the wearing of masks. Later, when Montero reveals to his fellow dons a scheme for an independent California (built on slave labour, naturally), the giant map he unfurls and the huge round table they sit around have the whiff of a Bond movie - the villain outlining his plans for world domination to an assembly of international crooks. The climactic sequence outside a goldmine, involving scores of ragged labourers gestures, unconsciously or not, to the Nazis' desert encampment in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The most obvious analogy of all, however, is with our own favourite outlaw Robin Hood, another nobleman-turned-bandit-prince. Montero is Zorro's Sheriff of Nottingham, while the raven-haired Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the daughter Montero stole from Zorro 20 years before, is Maid Marian. The Z which is left inscribed upon doorposts is the equivalent of the arrow that comes twanging out of nowhere onto Nottingham's banqueting- table: a calling-card of righteousness. Yet there is a crucial and quite puzzling disparity between Zorro and Hood. While both are heroes to the poor and downtrodden, the one famously relies upon camp followers (and they didn't come much camper than Errol Flynn's gaily-stockinged Merrie Men in The Adventures of Robin Hood), the other is a determined individualist who abjures the notion of teamwork.
Which leads us to the question: what does Zorro actually do? Without help of any sort, what can he do? True, crowds of Latino peasants regularly cheer his name as their liberator, and in the film's opening set-piece Hopkins saves three men from the firing-squad. Until the very end, however, we are offered no evidence of his role as a local saviour. While Banderas slowly finds his feet as Zorro's anointed, it's less a case of derring- do as derring-don't. The film-makers would seem to be under the illusion that slapstick has been recently invented. How we laugh as Zorro the younger tries jumping off a wall on to his horse and falls on his backside! Slap a thigh when the horse bolts and throws him off! They even have the nerve to try that ancient routine wherein a man is jumped upon all at once by a gang of assailants and then crawls away from under the scrum unnoticed. Hilarious.
Is it too late to mention that The Mask of Zorro is also pretty enjoyable? Despite the fact that Campbell and his three screenwriters often appear reluctant to seek alternatives to a cliche, the film barrels along at a fair clip, and knows how to stage a spectacle. The clack of the castanets as Banderas and Zeta-Jones do the fandango has a hot-blooded thrill all of its own, later matched by their equally flirtatious sword fight. The pair meet the director's most important requirement - being easy on the eye - but they're good sports about keeping a straight face amid so much theatrical twaddle. You always worry about what Hopkins might do in these circumstances; generally, the bigger the movie, the hammier the performance (see, or rather don't, Amistad, Nixon and Legends of the Fall). Here he mercifully decides to underact, relying upon those piercing eyes and his trademark chuckle. That it won't earn him an Oscar nomination is a salute to his restraint.
So it's at least half-an-hour too long, overloaded with borrowings from other movies and riven with countless absurdities (here's another - given that Zorro uses only a sword, why doesn't anybody take the obvious expedient and simply shoot him?). The Mask of Zorro sweeps you along despite itself. If you see only one swashbuckling epic this year, make sure it's Le Bossu with the great Daniel Auteuil. If you see another, make it this.