#506: The Mask of Zorro

A classic revival to slash the swashbuckler competition

june gloom
4 min readApr 1, 2023

Initial release: July 17, 1998
Director: Martin Campbell

When it comes to discussing media and pop culture in the United States, it’s important to recognize that much of the American national pop cultural memory is made up of pulp and serial heroes of the first half of the 20th century. The Lone Ranger, the Shadow, even the Cthulhu mythos — and characters like Batman and Spiderman owe their inspiration to these radio and magazine legends. So as the classic California swashbuckler Zorro, to some extent, passed on the mantle of a masked protector of the innocent against corruption to Batman, it seems appropriate that, nearly 60 years after the classic 1940 film that firmly put Zorro into the cultural consciousness, the character would experience a revival that sees him passing on the mantle to a successor. Enter Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro.

Campbell has been here before; just a few years prior, he gave the world Goldeneye, the James Bond film that made Pierce Brosnan a household name and the most recognizable Bond since Sean Connery (at least at the time) and, most importantly, revived the Bond franchise after it fell into a slump in the 80s and early 90s following Roger Moore’s controversial tenure. And, what’s more, he would do it again a decade later with Casino Royale, a full-scale reboot of the franchise that, by all measures, was a roaring success.

So of course Campbell was the obvious choice to revive the somewhat moribund Zorro character — though he wasn’t the first one. The project was initially conceived by Steven Spielberg with the idea of Sean Connery as an aging Zorro, but went through some turnover — Connery was out, initial directorial pick Mikael Solomon (previously a cinematographer on films like Backdraft, The Abyss and Arachnophobia) was replaced by Robert Rodriguez hot off his breakout hit Desperado, Rodriguez brought Antonio Banderas with him and then left over money issues, Connery got replaced by Anthony Hopkins, and finally the project landed in Campbell’s lap, who took on this film over Tomorrow Never Dies (probably for the best, really.)

However, in Campbell’s hands, he turned what could have been a decent, if unremarkable action-adventure into the best kind of late 90s swashbuckler — full of incredible stunts, great cinematography, sharp dialogue, and a tale of two men’s burning desires for revenge that sometimes bring them into conflict with each other. Hopkins is a funny choice as an aging Diego de la Vega, not even trying to hide his British accent, but he works well as a mentor figure. Sometimes the film feels a little Batman Beyond with the way Banderas’ character Alejandro is shaped from a young punk into a true successor to Zorro, complete with training in Diego’s own personal little Zorro-Cave.

Rounding out the cast are Catherine Zeta-Jones as Diego’s long-lost daughter Elena, smart and capable and just as handy with a sword as she is on the dance floor; Stuart Wilson as the villainous Don Rafael Montero, despised former governor of California, charismatic and conniving; and Matt Lescher, whose film career will probably forever be overshadowed by his role as the sinister Captain Love, based on a real figure who indeed preserved body parts of supposed bandits in jars full of brandy, just like his movie counterpart.

The film’s strength is in its audacity, with ever-bigger set pieces and ever more absurd sword fights — a throwdown at the militia armory results in the whole place burning down, while later Zorro fights goons atop the very table around which Don Rafael gathers his most trusted subordinates to plot the theft of California from Mexico. Its more dramatic elements are solid, if not particularly deep, with most of the fun being the verbal (and later physical) sparring between Elena and Alejandro.

There’s not a lot to ding the movie for, to be honest. It is what it is, a solid adventure romp that bridges the Zorro of bygone days with a new take for the modern era, made at the height of the adventure genre’s greatest era since Errol Flynn. It doesn’t get much better than this.

-june❤

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june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]