'Zorro' Unmasked

Steven Spielberg is only an executive producer of "The Mask of Zorro," but the movie bears his mark as vividly as Zorro's enemies bear the fiery Z he carves as a sign of his power. The action is explosive, the romance is sentimental, and the message is a Spielbergian blend of "love conquers all" and "might makes right."

The story begins in 1821, as the people of California struggle for liberation from their Spanish oppressors. Their greatest champion is Zorro, a masked outlaw whose personal war against the Spaniards has become legendary. His foes are wily, though, and the movie is barely past its opening titles when the treacherous Don Rafael Montero manages to kill Zorro's wife, abduct his baby, and lock him in prison.

Nobody can keep a Hollywood hero behind bars forever, of course, and Zorro eventually leaves his cell. But two decades have passed, and he's a little old for the swordplay that used to be all in a day's work. What he needs is an apprentice, and if candidates aren't exactly lined up for the job, he'll have to make do with the material at hand: a dashing young bandit who needs a few lessons in technique, discipline, and charm. Soon teacher and pupil are an unbeatable team, determined to wreck Don Rafael's new scheme to build an independent California on the backs of its ruthlessly exploited population.

"The Mask of Zorro" is proudly old-fashioned in every way except the often excessive violence that director Martin Campbell splashes across the screen. Anthony Hopkins demonstrates his versatility as the older hero, Antonio Banderas keeps up nicely as his protg, and Catherine Zeta-Jones couldn't be much better as his daughter. She's a bright new talent with a promising Hollywood future.

* Rated PG-13; contains violence. David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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