[Screen It]

(2005) (Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones) (PG)

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Action/Adventure: A legendary, mid-19th century swordsman must battle villains not only to get his wife back, but also to preserve California's chance of becoming a state.
It's 1850 and the residents of California are voting whether the land should be admitted as the nation's 31st state. Yet, various forces are conspiring to prevent that from happening, with the villain McGivens (NICK CHINLUND) and his men trying to steal the votes, prompting the masked Zorro (ANTONIO BANDERAS) to swing into action, defeat them and save the day.

Yet, things aren't as successful at home where the hero's alter ego, Don Alejandro de la Vega (ANTONIO BANDERAS) is having marital issues with wife Elena (CATHERINE ZETA-JONES) over him not being around enough for their 10-year-old son Joaquin (ADRIAN ALONSO). The boy, who turns out to be a chip off the old block, idolizes Zorro and wishes his dad could be more like him, unaware of the truth behind his father's passive front.

Things get worse when Elena -- after being confronted by two men who threaten to expose Don Alejandro's secret -- files for divorce and then later takes up with French aristocrat Armand (RUFUS SEWELL), a former classmate whose true motives for being in the country are masked by his dabbling in the wine producing business. Having to battle McGivens and then go after Armand and his right-hand man, Ferroq (RAÚL MÉNDEZ), once he learns what's really going on, Zorro - with the help of Friar Felipe (JULIO OSCAR MECHOSO) -- sets out to defeat them and win back his wife.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
As far as movie sequels are concerned, there are both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to being compared to the original film. The latter includes the very fact that the release is a sequel that obviously lacks the novelty of the first effort. At the same time, with the "get to know you" material out of the way, creative filmmakers can build on the themes, characters and storyline from the first rather than simply regurgitating that which occurred the first time around.

In the case of "The Legend of Zorro," all of the above attributes are present, resulting in something of a mixed bag, albeit a moderately entertaining and enjoyable one. For starters, the fun of the original -- which really wasn't original since the tale of the masked swordsman had been told countless times before on screens both big and small -- was the introduction of the characters, their initial interaction with one another and the subsequent plot.

The result was a rousing, old-fashioned, action-adventure yarn that performed well with both critics and movie audiences alike. Now, seven years later, we have the tardy sequel that reunites director Martin Campbell with stars Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Zorro and his wife Elena. This time around, however, the two aren't getting along (thus copying but modifying their antagonism from the first film), mostly over her belief that all work and no play makes Zorro an absentee father to their 10-year-old son.

While the marital and work-related strife aren't amped up to the same sort of degree as occurred in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," the bicker-based banter is fun and funny to behold, which also holds true for the incredulous facial reactions of the Z-man about what's occurring. The filmmakers also made sure to include similar scenes to those that transpired in the first regarding him and his feisty horse (with it drinking and smoking here).

Yet, since Anthony Hopkins could not return to reprise his role as the first Zorro, screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman have gone the opposite direction -- namely the introduction of young Adrian Alonso as the couple's son who's obviously inherited his parents' fighting prowess. Joaquin is a chip off the old block -- something of a mini-me Zorro - and the kid's portrayal of him -- obviously designed to replace the mentor/protégé relationship from the first -- will either delight or annoy viewers, all depending on how they view precocious kids.

The plot -- involving villains ultimately trying to undermine the stability of the growing U.S. with what amount to 19th century weapons of mass destruction -- feels like something that could have fueled one of Jackie Chan's "Shanghai Noon" flicks. By that, I mean it feels a little too contemporary for the period setting, while it's also present only as a framework upon which Campbell and his stunt crew can place the film's various signature action set pieces.

And it's during those moments when the film truly shines. While a few are over-edited (presumably to hide the fact that Alonso isn't a budding Jackie C. or that Banderas is getting a bit long in the tooth for such elaborate stunts and fight moves), most are effective enough in emulating old serial cliffhangers to be entertaining in a turn off the brain fashion.

That latter mental tactic will be necessary for accepting Rufus Sewell as a French aristocrat (I didn't note his nationality until I read it in the press notes), but Julio Oscar Mechoso is fun as something of a friar-based "Alfred the butler" to Zorro, and Nick Chinlund is adequate if one-dimensional as the secondary villain. Alonso is okay as the rowdy if physically talented son, but the overall absentee father bit regarding his and Banderas' characters feels a little too trite.

As does the overall marital discord angle. Since they only just got married at the end of the first film (and Zorro was relatively still green in his new role assumed from Hopkins' character), the viewer is apt to feel gypped that he or she has missed all of their moments battling villains together in the intervening years. While both performers still fit the bill for their respective characters (who wouldn't want to see Zeta-Jones reprise the tight-corseted character that made her a star), it would have been nice if they had a stronger and smarter script with which to play them.

Not as good as the first time around but containing enough rousing action sequences and fun, antagonistic interplay between Banderas and Zeta-Jones, "The Legend of Zorro" comes off as a mindless, popcorn diversion. It rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 12, 2005 / Posted October 28, 2005

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