Martin Campbell’s “Legend of Zorro” — the sequel to the marvelous 1998 “Mask of Zorro” — is everything you never knew you wanted in a swashbuckler: A comedy of remarriage, a rousing exploration of the meaning of good citizenship, a sly primer on how not to be a wimpy, self-involved parent — all that and killer backflips too. The picture is almost shamefully entertaining, bold and self-effacing at once: Its intelligence reveals itself as a devilish gleam, not a pompous layer of shellac. Why can’t more Hollywood movies be like this one?
When “The Mask of Zorro” — in which Zorro, played by Anthony Hopkins, emerges from retirement to train Antonio Banderas as his successor — came out, I urged everyone I knew to see it. And although it wasn’t the sort of picture to win big awards or earn gassy accolades from critics, its audience definitely found it–whenever it comes up in conversation, people seem to remember it with great fondness. When I bought the soundtrack recording for “The Legend of Zorro” at Tower Records the other day (the James Horner score is effervescent and magisterial, not the usual rubberized gelatin he usually serves up), the clerk shyly asked me if I’d seen the movie yet. He said he loved the original and was afraid the sequel might be repetitious.
That was a possibility that had never occurred to me, and having already seen “The Legend of Zorro,” I assured him repetition wasn’t a problem. But what Campbell does pull off is a comfortable familiarity, a kind of Saturday-afternoon TV casualness that shouldn’t be underestimated, seeing that few directors today know how to achieve it. In “The Legend of Zorro,” Banderas returns as Don Alejandro de la Vega, who is also, of course, Zorro. He’s been married to his lady love, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) for 10 years, and they have a young son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). Elena has been waiting patiently for Alejandro to scale back, and eventually hang up for good, his dangerous Zorro duties. She fears for his life, and she also wants him to spend more time with Joaquin, who, she claims, barely knows his father.
But this is California in 1850. The citizens have just elected to join the union; it’s an exciting time but also one of potential unrest. In fact, just after the people have cast their votes in favor of statehood, a creepy stranger with a pulpy, cross-shaped scar on his cheek (played by Nick Chinlund) rides into town and tries to make off with the ballot box. “Time to do the Lord’s work,” he says, barely parting his sinewy, villainous lips.
Zorro saves the day and, temporarily, at least, whups the villain. But at home that evening, as he listens to Elena’s fervent complaints (and let’s note that well before she even starts kvetching, she’s lit a zillion candles in their love nest and donned a staggeringly seductive something-or-other), he realizes it’s a bad time to quit his day job. The two quarrel; he storms out of their romantic stucco villa. He rides off on his trusty horse, Tornado, but pauses at the foot of a hill, looking back up toward his home in the deepening twilight; he can’t quite see that Elena is standing in the window, looking for him, too.
While “The Legend of Zorro” (which is rated PG) is completely suitable for kids, it’s also that rarest of beasts: a sophisticated adult adventure. The quarrel of that evening becomes a major rift and, even though we don’t learn the full story until later, Elena serves Alejandro divorce papers. Not long after, a villainous French tomcat, Armand (Rufus Sewell), comes sniffing around Elena, inflaming Alejandro’s pride and inciting intense jealousy. In one scene, Alejandro and Elena confront each other at a massive party hosted by Armand: He’s had too much to drink; she’s annoyed by his obnoxiousness. Their argument is so passionate that it nearly becomes physical. This may be a “family” picture, but Campbell and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who have worked on TV’s “Alias” and also wrote the preposterous but enjoyable “The Island”) don’t desexualize Elena and Alejandro just because they’re parents. Banderas and Zeta-Jones, in addition to both being gorgeous, are bracingly lively performers here. Their chemistry sings. Neither Campbell nor his actors shy away from the big bang that brings families into the world in the first place.
If anything, Elena and Alejandro go at parenting with the same gusto they use to fend off baddies (and this is a movie where the women aren’t delicate flowers who need to be protected by the menfolk). To hide his identity as Zorro, Alejandro poses as a wealthy don, even though his real job is to fight for the people. His son, of course, sees him as only a rich, important, busy man, which is essentially the life he’d have to live full-time if he stopped being Zorro. During that first, fierce argument, he stresses to Elena how that would affect their son: “He’ll grow up to be a nice little aristocrat who has no idea where he came from.” It’s a tossed-off line that poses an intense question: How do you raise kids to understand where they came from while simultaneously giving them all the advantages that you may have had to struggle for yourself? (In the Brooklyn neighborhood near where I live, I see enough parents pushing kids in $700 strollers who don’t appear to have given that question any thought.)
Even within its supremely entertaining lightness, “The Legend of Zorro” is seriously liberal-minded: It urges us to believe in the ideals of government but reminds us that it’s a bad idea to cede complete, unquestioning trust in the people in charge. And in between all of that, “The Legend of Zorro” features some of the most blissful on-screen stunts since, well, “The Mask of Zorro.” When we see a small hole in a stone wall, we just know that in a matter of seconds, Zorro is going to sail through it, head first — and so he does. The swordfighting and combat sequences are shot and edited with satisfying clarity (and, significantly, they feature lots of real-life stunt work and relatively little CGI). In one of the movie’s most exciting sequences, Tornado, with Zorro on his back, leaps onto a moving train. Admittedly, it’s an effect that couldn’t be achieved without at least a little computer help. But it looks so real, and is so exquisitely thrilling to watch, that you believe — or at least want to believe — wholeheartedly that what you just saw actually happened. With “The Legend of Zorro,” Campbell pulls off the impossible. He gives us a hero who, by merely tending to his civic responsibilities, makes us forget we have jobs to go to, or homework to do. Zorro, as one character puts it, intending it as a slight, is “a peasant masquerading as a folk hero.” Hell, yeah. At the very least, he’s given us back our Saturday afternoon.