" Oh come come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil, that needn’t make you a teetotaler. "
— Edward Arnold, The Devil and Daniel Webster

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Lots of overacting. Lots of clichés. Lots of fun.

Two out of three ain’t good. In school, it’ll earn you a D.

Anthony Hopkins plays the aging masked avenger in this perennially remade movie. Hoping to draw Zorro out of hiding, the villainous governor Don Rafael (Stuart Wilson) has chosen three peasants at random to be hanged. His plot works. Zorro arrives to free the peasants. But Rafael’s trap is not quick enough or strong enough to hold this hero. Setting the overblown, clichéd tone of the movie, Zorro ascends a staircase in front of the setting sun and poses, yes, poses for the cheering masses.

Later that evening, Don Diego (Zorro’s alter ego) comes home, through his unnecessarily Bat-Cave-like secret passageways, to his loving wife and infant daughter. His wife has been worried about his dangerous heroics, and she urges him to hang up his sword. He admits he’s getting too old for this work, so he promises he’ll quit.

Before they can celebrate his retirement, Don Rafael shows up with his militia looking for Zorro. A wound from the day’s battle gives away Diego’s secret identity. Rafael’s man kills Diego’s wife while Rafael throws him in prison and carries away his beautiful daughter.

Twenty years later, we are introduced to two thieves, brothers from the same village as Diego. One is killed by the zealous Captain Love (Matthew Letscher), and the other, Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), vows revenge. Alejandro is falling-down drunk when he next sees the captain, but he cannot let the opportunity for revenge slip by. He’s about to charge when, out of nowhere, Diego disarms him.

Diego, who has escaped from prison, recognizes Alejandro’s potential. He sees an opportunity to pass the mask and sword to the next generation, so he gets Alejandro sobered up and takes him under his wing.

Coincidentally, the villain Rafael is returning from Spain after twenty years away. Even more coincidentally, he gets involved in an illegal land-grab scheme with the aid of Captain Love.

Two heroes. Two villains. Two noble opportunities for revenge. I bet you can guess how it all ends.

Clearly, this film is meant to be a melodrama. Love, villainy, and honor are all exaggerated. But melodrama is hard to pull off. Titanic did it fairly well, but even it carried the melodrama too far, in the inhuman callousness of its villain. Needless to say, The Mask of Zorro is no Titanic. In this film, the melodrama is often eyeball-rolling ridiculous, like Zorro posing in front of the sunset, or Rafael’s random execution of peasants.

In addition, the movie has cartoonish set pieces which, funny as they may be, make the movie a lot less consistent. (Think of Yosemite Sam when you watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.) Campbell knows that he’s directing a “summer blockbuster” and doesn’t even try to make a solid movie. Instead, he just goes for obligatory skits, loosely held together by the Zorro story.

That’s not to say the movie can’t be fun, but it will require that you check your brain with the usher. Perhaps if I had known this beforehand, I could have enjoyed it more.

Some of these skits actually won me over. Anytime there was a swordfight, it was worth watching. Anytime a horse was on screen, it was worth watching (there were some very good stunts). Any time Banderas was allowed to pour on the charm, it was worth watching. Add this all up and you have a fair amount of screen time.

But you don’t have 136 minutes. What’s left is enough time to notice, and ponder, several of the movie’s faults.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t mention set design unless it was good, but even in this motley patchwork of a movie, it stuck out like a sore thumb. As stated above, Diego has secret Batman tunnels in his mansion. It is an unimportant detail, and it should have been left out. It made Hopkins look silly and it didn’t add to the character’s depth. All it accomplished was to draw attention to the bad set design.

The other instance that jumped out was near the end of the film, when hundreds of peasant miners are locked in wooden cages that appear to be recycled from Waterworld. The plot tells us that these cages were built for a one-time use, on a limited budget, by near-slave labor, yet these “makeshift” cages have the look of professionally built Hollywood sets. This might not have been so noticeable had not the camera and plot kept focusing our attention on them.

The screenplay has problems too. One problem is the patchwork makeup of the film — six writers contributed to the screenplay (along with a seventh uncredited writer, according to the IMDB). One moment the movie is a comedy, the next it is a noble adventure. There’s no reason it can’t be both, but usually the mix is not so random or haphazard.

Another script problem is the way the characters were written. Zorro is supposed to be a hero for the people. Instead, both Zorros are extremely self-centered. This is particularly clear at the end. Hundreds of doomed peasants fill the well-built cages, but instead of freeing them, both Zorros pick grudge fights with their personal nemeses, leaving these apparently helpless miners trapped.

And finally the soundtrack, which was so promising early on, sold itself out at the film’s conclusion. There was some excellent flamenco music during several of the movie’s swordfights. The syncopated sounds of guitar, claps, and stamps added a nice spicy flavor not only to the scenes but to the film as a whole. And then, as the credits start to roll, out comes a soulless white-bread pop song, sprinkled with a tiny dash of off-brand, extra-mild salsa. It was a weak choice that gave the movie a disappointingly bland, dull aftertaste.

For me, the clichés and cheap laughs belied a shoddy, aimless movie. But if you shop around for reviews, you will find that nearly everyone liked this movie better than I did. More power to them, and to you if you go.