The novel A Death in the Family, by the American film critic and occasional screenwriter James Agee, opens with a vivid vignette of a father accompanying his son to the cinema. They arrive in the middle of a (silent) William S Hart western and duly depart when the programme has come full circle. "Well," says the father, "reckon this is where we came in."
This is where we came in. These days it seems unimaginable that audiences once treated the movies so cavalierly. Who, after all, would open a novel at the hundreth page, start reading it, then close it again at the ninety-ninth? Yet that's precisely how everyone used to go to the cinema and, crass and philistine as it unquestionably was, it did mean that modest genre movies were never allowed to get ideas above their station. It's even possible that the cinema's decline as a populist art form can be dated from the exact juncture in its history, some time in the late 1960s, when such a reprehensible practice was made obsolete.
I propose this whimsical little theory of mine not merely because The Mask of Zorro ought to be just the sort of movie that spectators used to sashay in and out of when it suited them, but also because it strikes me as emblematic of the disastrously wrong turning taken of late by the Hollywood industry. (And before anyone dismisses me as a fogeyish grouch, let me point out that in the States, where its commercial career has been only so-so, Zorro was more rapturously received by reviewers anxious to demonstrate their populist credentials than it was by its targeted public.) The problem with Martin Campbell's new movie is that, even though by no means a disgrace, it's finally just another inflated big nothing, when it might have been, like the earlier Zorros, a likeable example of that terminally endangered species of mainstream American film-making: a small something.
The plot is thin but perfectly serviceable. There is, it's true, some potted 19th-century Californian history to digest, but it's all handily spelt out in an opening title card. An elegantly melancholy Anthony Hopkins plays Don Diego de la Vega, alias the masked superhero Zorro, who thirsts for vengeance after his wife is shot and his baby daughter Elena abducted and raised by the province's scheming Spanish governor as his own child. Having languished in a dungeon for nigh on 20 years, Don Diego eventually makes his escape, encounters a feckless young bandit, Alejandro (a broody but rather Desperate Dan-like Antonio Banderas: watch that budding double chin, Antonio!), and, initiating him into the fine art of gentlemanly swordsmanship, bequeaths to him his mask, his trademark "Z" and his tireless struggle for independence. Or self-determination. Or something or other.
Following numerous adventures, as synopsis-writers put it, Alejandro and the now voluptuously grown-up Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones, for whom the expression "just a pretty face" might have been coined) fall into each other's arms and, it's hinted, the movie itself has a sequel, like a bun, in the oven.
Well, maybe. Except that it hasn't been that much of a success, and I like to think the reason why is that it aspires to be more than the sort of pot-boiler you could once just stroll into half-way through. Take, for example, its running time: two hours and 17 minutes, which is preposterous for what is essentially an unpretentious adventure movie. Or its earsplitting soundtrack, which makes a silk shirt ripped open by some nifty swordplay sound like a screeching tyre, and causes an attic window to shatter so deafeningly, you'd think the entire Empire State Building had been dynamited. Why does every American movie nowadays have to be miked, like a Cameron Mackintosh musical?
Worst of all is the inimitable and ubiquitous Spielberg touch. If ever a film company was misnamed, it's Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. "Amblin" suggests the lazy, the laid-back, the pleasantly lackadaisical. Spielberg's movies, by contrast - even those he only produces, like this Zorro - tend to the bombastically uplifting, with pounding incidental music (incidental, ha!) and an editing style designed to have every single shot, however anodyne, make an explosive impact. The boss even insisted on stamping Campbell's film with his own patented trademark: flamboyantly rearing up on horseback, Banderas is silhouetted against a preternaturally bright full moon, like ET's Elliott on his bike.
All that said, though, it would be churlish not to admit that The Mask of Zorro is likely to give pleasure to many people who never read reviews (and probably quite a few who do), and who've never heard of Douglas Fairbanks or Tyrone Power. The sword-fights are deftly choreographed, and often genuinely inventive. In the scenes of Alejandro's apprenticeship one lovely shot in particular stands out, the very best in the movie: a bare-chested Banderas performing press-ups over a bed of lighted candles, while Hopkins, puffing on a cigar, rests his feet on the comfy, sexy small of his back. And even if they won't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the classier spaghetti westerns, there are a handful of laugh-out- loud slapstick gags.
A pity, then, that what could have been a nice, entertaining 89-minute action movie has been swamped by - Ah but, if I'm not mistaken, this is where we came in.
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