Martin Campbell'director of the 1998 The Mask of Zorro and its new sequel The Legend of Zorro'has been signed to direct next year’s James Bond film Casino Royale with freshly annointed 007 Daniel Craig. They’ve promised a darker, edgier Bond. The Legend of Zorro forces me to ask, “Why?
I know it’s considered some sort of cinephile blasphemy'like loathing the narcotic naturalism of Iranian films'but for me, the defining Bond flicks have always been the 1970s Roger Moore efforts. Yes, fine, Moore’s Bond wasn’t anything like Ian Fleming’s character, and his facial expressions ranged from amusement to bemusement. Still, the Bond films I grew up with put a premium on robust, preposterous entertainment. They defied physics, history and probably several other academic subjects as well, but they were adventures played with heroic gusto.
Campbell has figured out that formula in The Legend of Zorro, resulting in a film that’s more like the Moore Bond films than anything that followed, including Campbell’s own previous Bond project GoldenEye. Ten years have passed since the events in the previous Zorro, landing us during the build-up towards California statehood. Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Banderas) is still donning the mask and cape to defend the common people, which proves more than slightly frustrating to his wife Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She wants Alejandro to retire from his dangerous life while his identity is still secret and help her raise their son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso); Alejandro isn’t quite ready to hang up his sword.
Thus begins a domestic battle that dominates most of the film’s interpersonal dynamics. Elena divorces Alejandro and begins spending time with Armand (Rufus Sewell), a recently arrived French count who must be up to no good because â€¦ well, he’s French. Alejandro tries to deal with Joaquin’s feelings of resentment as the young lad'who, naturally, idolizes the Zorro he has no idea is his own dad'acts out in school. Even caped crusaders can, it seems, have dysfunctional home lives.
The Battling Bickersons relationship between Banderas and Zeta-Jones gets a bit wearying'and young Alonso’s cutesy-faced 19th-century Dennis the Menace routine even more so'but there’s also a whole lot of fun. Let loose from dealing with the lengthy back-story that bogged down The Mask of Zorro, Campbell launches right into the swashbuckling and plenty of opportunities for Banderas to look suave and dashing. And aside from a couple of shootings, it’s a decidedly PG-rated brand of swashbuckling, a rousing brand of derring-do reminiscent of Richard Lester’s Musketeers films.
It’s also swashbuckling with an emphasis on the bigger-than-life and gleefully unreal. This Zorro is never content to take a simple step when a backflip could be thrown in for spice; his horse Tornado comically bugs his eyes when imminent danger appears. It’s a groove you’re either going to roll with or snicker at derisively: The action borders on the absurd, then crosses that border, then tramples over the border like an invading army.
That, however, is what you’d expect from 1970s James Bond, and every beat of The Legend of Zorro feels cribbed from that blueprint. Campbell’s opening sequence kicks into high gear out of the gate like Bond’s traditional pre-credits chase. The main villain gets a distinctively grotesque henchman'here a self-styled zealot with a cross burned into his face (Nick Chinlund)'who exists primarily for a satisfying moment before the hero faces off with the main villain. And that main villain doesn’t just plot for anything as mundane as a bank heist. His goal is'say it with me now'World Domination, complete with a doomsday weapon and a lair that, for no good reason, includes a logo for his villainy.
Silly? Absolutely. But it works when a filmmaker commits to this kind of action model, keeps up an energetic pace, and casts performers who don’t take anything too seriously'though admittedly, with Sewell’s version of a French accent, it would be hard to take it too seriously. The Legend of Zorro takes me back to the way I remember popcorn movies'big without being bombastic, goofy without being stupid. It’d be swell if Martin Campbell remembered'before taking that edgy, dark 007 angle'that sometimes Moore is more.