THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998) – A swashbuckler that shows they *can* make them like they used to

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This post is dedicated to Fritzi at the blogĀ Movies Silently, who recently announced herĀ Swashathon!, a blogathon taking place on Nov. 7-9, 2015 that is devoted to swashbuckling movies past and present. Click on the above banner to find out more about the ‘thon and how to enter it!

As Fritzi’s blogathon is devoted to movies released up to only 1970, I thought I’d share my review of a delightful swashbuckler from the 1990’s.

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These days, when filmmakers do ironic takes on old movies, you get the feeling they’re serving up spoofs because they don’t have the energy or nerve to do the real thing. But The Mask of Zorro is sincere about updating the old Saturday-matinee hero and, happily, does a darned good job of it.

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At first, the storyline makes you fear the worst. The original Zorro (Anthony Hopkins), having been stripped of his wife and daughter by his evil adversary (Stuart Wilson, looking and acting like Mel Brooks on a tear), pulls a “Lethal Weapon” and decides he’s too old for this stuff. Twenty years later, Zorro Sr. recruits a down-on-his-luck bandito (Antonio Banderas) to revive the black-mask-superhero franchise.

But as this is a Steven Spielberg production, what The Mask of Zorro is really about is the art of filmmaking, and it shows what some imaginative people (director Martin Campbell among them) can do with a movie camera. There are some old-fashioned stunts and physical comedy that are carried off just about perfectly herre. And usually, these shoot-the-works movies peter out just before the end credits, but this one has the most satisfying adventure-movie wrap-up I’ve seen in a long time.

I wouldn’t have guessed that Hopkins (as Zorro?!) or Banderas had this in them, but they play the most outrageous situations with perfectly straight faces, and it seems to invigorate them. (My only complaint with this gloriously fun movie is the unconvincing youthful look given to Hopkins at the movie’s start. I guess the filmmakers’ love of old-movie conventions extends to bad hair-dye jobs.)

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And Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the love interest, might just have you swooning with delight (especially with a beaut of a sight gag in which Zeta-Jones is undressed by Banderas in a most unique way).

It’s hard to say how modern-day movie viewers jaded by toy soldiers and destructo-epics will respond to swashbucklers who are presented without a trace of irony. But The Mask of Zorro proves that heroes can still be served up straight, if it’s done with some wit and panache.

THE TERMINAL (2004) – One of Steven Spielberg’s and Tom Hanks’ finest hours

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If Charlie Chaplin was still alive and creating, it’s easy to imagine him making a light comedy as richly satisfying as The Terminal. Just as Chaplin used to take a prop and wring every possible gag out of it, Steven Spielberg’s prop is a New York airport terminal from which he extracts every story possibility. And Spielberg’s Chaplin is Tom Hanks, who takes a potentially show-offy, Meryl Streep-type role and turns it into a movie character for the ages.

Hanks’ role is Viktor Navorski, a European immigrant who becomes a modern-day “man without a country” when his native land gets embroiled in a revolution. Viktor can’t return home because his country is under siege, and he can’t legally enter New York until his country’s new leadership is recognized by the U.S. So Viktor has no choice but to live in the terminal — much to the consternation of Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), whose chances of becoming the terminal’s top dog are jeopardized by Viktor’s constantly being under foot.

The movie’s premise is laid out pretty flatly in the first ten minutes, which begins to sink one’s hopes. But it’s as though Spielberg wants to get the mandatory stuff out of the way quickly so he can explore all of the possibilities in his huge playtoy. And he spins Viktor through every facet of the terminal like a colorful top, involving the terminal’s quirky workers in his meager existence.

In that sense, The Terminal is a lot like Being There (1979), where Peter Sellers played an illiterate simpleton on whom politicians projected their needs and desires. But Hanks is far from a blank slate. His body language, physical comedy, and deceptively simple dialogue speak volumes. Chaplin regretted having to give up silent movies because he felt that his “Little Tramp” could not express himself uniquely with sound. I think something like The Terminal would have been an effective solution.

That’s not to belittle Hanks’ winning co-stars, especially Catherine Zeta-Jones as Viktor’s potential love interest and Chi McBride as one of Viktor’s many supporters. They all give Spielberg’s work the sheen of a big, beautiful dream.