Who were that masked man?

I didn't want to see The Mask of Zorro. I found the trailer interminable. I cringed at the thought of enduring two hours of Antonio Banderas as some kind of romantic outlaw. But it turned out to be the best "summer" movie on display this season. Equal parts escapism, comedy, and swashbuckler, Zorro provides that rare commodity: real old-fashioned entertainment without any post-modern aftertaste. The dread Banderas charm never surfaces. The filmmakers, as if they anticipated our horror of all that machismo, have given the Zorro persona a clever twist by splitting it into two different characters. Early in the film, the famed Mexican outlaw and friend of the people is played by Anthony Hopkins. Two little boys help him foil the wicked Spanish Dons, but alas, Don Rafael has his revenge: His men kill Zorro's wife, steal his infant daughter, and lock the swordsman in jail.

The Mask of Zorro

directed by Martin Campbell

starring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins

now playing at Meridian 16, Guild 45th, Oak Tree, and others

The film picks up the story several years down the road. Zorro, on the lam and in disguise, hooks up with one of the boys who helped him. Alejandro (Banderas) is all grown up and a bit of an outlaw himself now—a bumbling, drunken, unprincipled outlaw, to Zorro's disgust. In a wonderfully campy sequence, Zorro takes the young man to what is basically his Bat Cave and trains him in the ways of honorable fighting. Banderas—who cleverly showed himself adept at sending up American perceptions of the "Latin" persona in the otherwise abysmal Four Rooms—again pulls off an unexpected trick. By making his Zorro Jr. a bumbling incompetent, he seems all the more appealing and worthy of our goodwill when he finally is transformed into a "Zorro" himself, skilled at swordplay and able to do (really) thrilling tricks on steedback.

The two Zorros make a superb team as they try to thwart Don Rafael's evil plans to effectively steal the state of California. The Zorros' populism is highlighted by the casting of Matt Letscher as Captain Harrison Love, the Don's military sidekick. Letscher, with his flopping blonde hair and sea-blue eyes in a movie where everyone else is dark, becomes the quintessential California boy. He's every great-looking racist who ever mouthed off about "the Spics in the Valley." Is it mere coincidence he shares a surname with that other ber-Californian, Mike Love of the Beach Boys?

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