Real-deal swashbucklers are hard to find these days, and outside of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and a few period pieces with some sword-play elements, I can think of few recent efforts from this most venerable of genres. That’s why Martin Campbell’s rousing and fully entertaining The Mask of Zorro should be rediscovered, as it provided a welcome blast of widescreen fun in the theaters during the summer of 1998, becoming a big worldwide box office hit, and has really yet to be replicated since (the lackluster sequel didn’t come close to matching the charms of its predecessor). Starring Anthony Hopkins as the original and now retired Zorro/Don Diego de la Vega, the incident-packed narrative cooked up by credited screenwriters John Eskow, Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio finds Hopkins trying to track down his long lost daughter (Catherine Zeta-Jones), while training his hot-headed successor (the perfectly cast Antonio Banderas), and trying to foil the villain (Stuart Wilson), a devious politician who has one too many delusions of grandeur. Shot with a striking sense for action in bold and beautiful 2.35:1 widescreen by the great cinematographer Phil Meheux (The Long Good Friday, Campbell’s Bond reboot Casino Royale), the film’s numerous set-pieces are absolutely dazzling and remarkably CGI-free, stressing real stunts, real explosions, and some seriously superb sword fights.
The road to the big screen for this particular incarnation of the character was a long one, with producer Steven Spielberg at one point considering the helming duties, before courting directors Robert Rodriguez and Mikael Salomon for the job, with Sean Connery initially cast in the role that eventually went to Hopkins. Campbell was then offered the film, who ended up passing on the Pierce Brosnan Bond adventure, Tomorrow Never Dies (he had rebooted the series with Goldeneye a few years before). Producer David Foster and writer/director David S. Ward were both brought in for uncredited rewrites. Shot on location in Mexico City, the film conveys an epic sense of sweep while still retaining the proper intimate moments between the characters, mixing action and romance in equal measure, and allowing for Banderas to totally steal the show with his patented brand of roguish charm. Zeta-Jones, who was lit like an absolute goddess in tons of soft light, is nothing less than radiant in her part, which was written with zest and wit and with plenty of opportunity to surprise. James Horner’s robust musical score supplied terrific accompaniment in every scene, while the physical production itself is truly a marvel to look at, with production designer Cecilia Montiel and costume designer Graciela Mazón both delivering hugely impressive work in their departments. Bottom line: This is just a really, really fun movie. An Amblin Entertainment production.