It's been 85 years since Douglas Fairbanks slashed his way into the top tax bracket as the masked hero Zorro, and Hollywood still can find no reason to shut down the franchise. Technically speaking, The Legend of Zorro, starring Antonio Banderas as the guy with the sword and Catherine Zeta-Jones as his lady fair, is a sequel to their 1998 hit, The Mask of Zorro. But those who take the long view may choose to see it as Zorro 56, or Zorro 156, so durable has “the Robin Hood of Spanish California” proved to be to the movies since before they could talk.
In terms of film history, this new Legend may rate as something less than legendary. It's a workmanlike adventure yarn, intermittently reverent to the canon but not very inspired, and it must be said that Banderas is starting to show signs of wear — particularly in his close-ups. It may not be long until this Z-Man must pack the black cape in mothballs, back at the hacienda. For the moment, though, Tony and his stunt doubles can still buckle the old swash. Part circus acrobat and part Batman, Zorro is 100 percent showoff, and he provides some dazzling tricks here — knocking an entire platoon of grizzled villains off a wooden bridge, jousting with a polo mallet, galloping his faithful steed, Toronado, across the top of a careening passenger train as the low mouth of a tunnel fast approaches. Martin Campbell (who also handled The Mask of Zorro) is a director of the Incessant Action School: Even when the lovers pause to kiss, they seem out of breath.
The movie, written by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, is set a decade after its predecessor. The year is now 1850 and California is on the verge of statehood, the citizenry apparently unaware that Arnold Schwarzenegger will one day become their governor. Land baron Don Alejandro de la Vega (Zorro's day job) is at home with his wife, Elena (Zeta-Jones), and their bratty son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), a little whirling extrovert who could use a stiff shot of Ritalin. When civic duty calls again — some bad guys want to block statehood — Don Alejandro reaches for mask and sword. But his wife objects; Dad hardly knows his boy, and Mom wants him to stay home awhile.
Buena suerte! Beset by marital troubles, the Don goes middle-age crazy. He haunts the local saloons till the wee hours and sleeps all day. In one memorable scene we find him — no kidding — lolling in a hot tub with his mustachioed amigos. “My whole life is a party,” he informs us. Not even in the inspired 1981 spoof Zorro, the Gay Blade, in which George Hamilton substituted plum-colored tights for black, did we sense such smirkiness. But then, so many decades have passed since Fairbanks reveled in his derring-do that only low camp humor can serve Zorro now: too bad it comes off as embarrassment. “No one leaves my tequila worm dangling in the wind,” Big Z announces. Unfortunate writing, no?
Oh, well. Before long, the hero is back in action, doing battle with a band of Hells Angels-looking desperadoes led by a scar-faced degenerate named McGivens (Nick Chinlund) and with his wayward wife's new boyfriend, a haughty French count called Armand (Rufus Sewell), who's gone into the vineyard business. From the beginning, we sense that Armand's up to no good — he is French, after all — and we also know that Don Alejandro and Elena are not really destined for divorce court. Too much Spanish fire in their blood. Too many innocents to save. Too many glamorous costume changes to contemplate. Zeta-Jones is pretty handy herself with a foil (and a coal shovel). By the time the plot lumbers on into some nonsense about the coming Civil War and the secret development of a powerful new explosive, Elena has dispatched as many leering evildoers as her dashing hubby. At one point, they even slash their respective monograms — “Z” for him, “E” for her — into the retreating skivvies of a frightened opponent.
While James Horner's overwrought music thunders away on the soundtrack, the moviemakers try to ensure that their zillion-dollar investment herds everyone into the tent. For the kiddies in the house, we have little Joaquin, who can do daring little somersaults, just like his papi. For those obsessed with homeland security, we have foreign terrorists bent on destroying the United States. For political liberals, there's a caution embedded here about the nativist extremism of self-appointed border guards. Hey, for those who loved Sideways, there's even an elaborate California wine-tasting, complete with some self-important glass-sniffing and a major fireworks display.
Comes the finale — a spectacular train explosion with the archvillain lashed to the cowcatcher of the locomotive, à la Buster Keaton — by which time you may find yourself exhausted by the whole business. As exhausted as a movie genre that played itself out a long time ago.