Movie Review: The Mask of Zorro (1998)

I love the swashbuckler film genre and have ever since I saw The Princess Bride and several of the Zorro films as a kid. Consequently, I’m somewhat surprised that I never got around to seeing Mask of Zorro until just now.

Mask of Zorro was part of that brief shining moment in Hollywood in the 1990s where the studios had realized that movies with Spanish leads could make a bunch of money, particularly after the success of Desperado, leading to Robert Rodriquez getting considerably more work, and Antonio Banderas becoming a superstar. Though, sadly, this didn’t carry over in quite the same way to Hispanic actors.

Anyhoo, the film is something of a literal and metaphorical passing of the torch, with Anthony Hopkins playing the original Zorro – Don Diego de la Vega. With the Mexican army led by Santa Anna coming to claim California from the Spanish, de la Vega does one last ride as Zorro to make sure his arch-nemesis, Spanish governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), actually leaves. However, Montero is also planning on tying up loose ends and goes to take down de la Vega upon his return home. In the course of the confrontation, de la Vega’s wife ends up taking a bullet meant for him, Vega is arrested, and his daughter is taken by Montero to raise as his own.

Cut to 20 years later. Santa Anna’s war against the US isn’t going great, leading to Montero returning from Spain with a cunning plan – use a secret gold mine to buy Mexico from Santa Anna with what is technically his own money. With him is de la Vega’s daughter, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Meanwhile, bandit Alejandro Murieta (Banderas) sees his brother killed by Montero’s enforcer, gringo lawman Harrison Love (Matt Letscher). Murieta ends up running into a recently-escaped-from-prison de la Vega, who makes him an offer – de la Vega will teach Murieta the skills he needs to defeat Love if Murieta becomes Zorro and helps stop Montero.

This is, quite possibly, the highest budget Zorro film in the history of the franchise, and it shows on screen. Anthony Hopkins is one of the best actors in general to take the role of de la Vega, and Banderas similarly fits splendidly into the film. Further, the triumvirate of Hopkins, Banderas, and Zeta-Jones have excellent chemistry together.

The fight scenes are also very well put together, with some work that I might even say is better than the swordfights in the Pirates of the Carribean films. If I was to give a complaint, it’s that Letscher’s performance is a little underwhelming. He gets some extremely good material, but he undersells it in a way that doesn’t quite feel right. I don’t buy why he’d sell out the US to Santa Anna in this way. He doesn’t really have the motivation that Monteo has.

The film is still tremendous fun and if you still haven’t had a chance to see it, I recommend rectifying that.

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