From the opening scene, in which Zorro (Antonio Banderas) steps into a voting booth outfitted in full costume–black boots, mask, hat, and sword–it’s evident that The Legend of Zorro won’t attempt to be anything more than a silly, star-driven, action extravaganza. But despite the presence of Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and director Martin Campbell, this swashbuckling sequel to the 1998 box-office hit The Mask of Zorro swings a very dull sword. Lacking measurable thrills, intrigue, or humor, it is a rickety wagon of a film that wobbles down a bumpy, too-familiar path, trying to pass off an uninspired take on the same old action movie ride as something fresh and exciting.
The narrative is composed of a thrift-store collection of adventure-film odds and ends, and it rifles through a grab bag of superhero and western stand-bys with little thought as to how create a meaningful connection between them. Zorro, a masked crusader in 1850s California, is little more than a Batman figure for the era of buggies and leather chaps. Screenwriters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman seem to be operating under the assumption that dressing up in black and engaging in choreographed fisticuffs with swarms of ugly henchmen makes for an engaging story in any era, but their script feels driven by obligation rather than character. Thus we get the standard-genre fare: imperiled townsfolk being pushed off their land, a bratty, precious child who saves the day, a preening Eurotrash villain, and a train-top brawl for a finale. Aiming to be a cinematic marvel, it succeeds only in being marvelously bland.
Director Martin Campbell has had previous success, both with the first Zorro and Goldeneye, the first–and best–of the Brosnan Bond films. Neither were classics, but both films doled out generous portions of high-concept action and star appeal; sure they were formula, but they were formula with at least a hint of class. Since then, however, Campbell has descended into low-grade hackery, shoveling out B-rate action refuse like Vertical Limit and Beyond Borders. Sadly, The Legend of Zorro continues his trend toward soulless, overblown spectacle.
Campbell laboriously herds his action scenes through the necessary motions, but he can’t coral them into anything more than a barely coherent jumble. Rhythmless and frantic, they are packed tight with extravagance–swordfights and shootouts occur in all manner of locales, while waves of henchmen crash through every conceivable breakaway object the prop department had to offer.
Even within the loose, expansive boundaries of a Hollywood action film, the picture strains for plausibility, pushing toward the ridiculous at every opportunity. There are massive plot holes, with the rules of logic seeming to stop and start at the screenwriter’s convenience. Even gravity is a mere trifle to be ignored. Instead of straight-up slugfests, we get spin kicks and backflips galore. The film’s brawls are exercises in acrobatic absurdity that resemble Cirque du Soleil performances more than fight scenes.
Orci and Kurtzman have festooned their dialog with tired scatological humor and creaky, forced cleverness that’s anything but. Bad guys toting rifles growl out laughably menacing lines like “If God didn’t hurl lightnin,’ he’d sure carry one of these.” Zeta-Jones and Banderas sling allegedly witty repartee back and forth, but they seem as bored with their chitchat as the audience. It’s not banter so much as it is killing time between explosions and swordplay.
Even the presence of two fetching leads can’t give this doddering horse of a film the extra kick it needs. Both Banderas and Zeta-Jones are born stars–smooth-skinned beauties with elegant features that radiate before movie cameras. Still, despite their status as Hollywood royalty, they seem as disconnected and clueless as the rest of the film. A major plot point revolves around the development of the explosive substance nitroglycerin, but these two leads produce neither sparks nor chemistry.
As if hammy dialog and tired set pieces weren’t irritating enough, the film feels the need to bring in a precocious, cloying youngster, presumably to catch the attention of the little ones in the audience. He’s a loudmouth who talks back to his teachers, but the film treats his impertinence as valor–yet another hyperactive kid whose rudeness is passed off as virtue.
More irritating than the presence of the little kid are the film’s continual jabs at religion. The lead henchman, a sadistic, grisly voiced murderer (as henchmen tend to be), has a cross burned into his cheek and refers to his dastardly deeds as “God’s work.” The good priest, on the other hand, is good because he has no problems swearing or bending the rules when necessary. These utterly irrelevant excursions into religion-bashing manage to be annoying on multiple levels: They’re witless, juvenile, and entirely ancillary to the action.
Towards the end of the film, as if in hopes of adding some flimsy hint of emotional resonance, there’s a hastily tacked on appeal to the value of family. Like the rest of the film, it falls flat, coming off so syrupy and schmaltz laden you’ll wonder if it’s not part of a new government sugar subsidy.
Perhaps most worrisome is that director Campbell has been picked to helm the next Bond film, which, with a new star and promises of a grittier feel, is supposed to reinvigorate the flagging series. Campbell’s last Bond picture, Goldeneye, was slick fun, but his recent work sets a disturbing precedent for Bond lovers. As Alex Massie recently pointed out, the Bond series has often slipped into “moronic pandering to the lowest imaginable common denominator”–words that describe The Legend of Zorro with unfortunate precision.
– Peter Suderman is assistant editorial director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He maintains a blog on film and culture atwww.alarm-alarm.com.