There's an inherent problem with sequels to movies that were "surprisingly good," and the problem is this: Surprises generally only get you the first time. Don't believe me? Trying screaming "Surpriiiiiise!!!" at a surprise party that's already three hours old. People will look at you like you're socially retarded.
So when word came down that there would be a sequel to the surprise 1998 hit The Mask of Zorro, my skepticism ran a little rampant. On one hand, director Martin Campbell and stars Antonio Banderas & Cathy Z. Jones would be returning, and that made me happy. On the other, I learned that not only would screenwriters Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (two of my favorites) not be returning, but also that the plot of the sequel would see our beloved old heroes now saddled with a cutesy little kid.
Visions of The Mummy Returns and Jurassic Park: The Lost World danced through my head, because if Mork & Mindy taught us one thing, it's that the sudden addition of a new kid generally predicates a steep decline in storytelling quality. (My apologies to Jonathan Winters.)
But for the most part, The Legend of Zorro works, and when the flick is focusing on the wild action bits and the sword-flinging bouts of derring-do, it's a pretty darn solid (and family-friendly) adventure movie.
This time around, good ol' Zorro (Antonio Banderas, having much fun here) must contend with a fractured marriage, a precocious young son, a sneeringly aristocratic bad guy (Rufus Sewell), and a gang of evil bastards who'll stop at nothing to prevent California from becoming part of a very young United States. No muss, no fuss; a simple story for a streamlined adventure flick that's not created to tax your brain too excessively.
To their credit, newcomer screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Alias, The Island) strike upon a fun subplot by having Zorro's alter ego struggle through an estranged spot with his lovely wife Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) ... and she even threatens to hook up with the villain! Then again, Elena clearly seems to have a few secret spy-tricks up her sleeve...
Lacking (and clearly missing) the backbone that Anthony Hopkins brought to the first chapter, The Legend of Zorro is still some fairly rock-solid escapist entertainment all the same. The sequel seems to be a little safer & cuddlier than its predecessor ... but it's a whole helluva lot more entertaining than that awful, awful Mummy sequel.
Video: It's a very crisp and handsome leading man, er, video transfer. Sony delivers the flick in a clean and colorful anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) format, which brings the robust set design and impressive action sequences home in fine form indeed.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, which is just cracklingly explosive ... especially during the parts of the movie that feature explosions. James Horner's Saturday matinee musical score will pipe through your speakers with much verve and vibrancy. Also included are a DD 2.0 French track and optional subtitles in English and French.
Extras: First up is a feature-length audio commentary with director Martin Campbell and cinematographer Phil Meheux. Full of soft-spoken stories and old-fashioned class, the guys deliver a worthwhile, if not all that exciting, chat-track. I did, however, get a kick out of the way Mr. Campbell vehemently dismisses the film critics who took exception with Rufus Sewell's French accent ... as if having a dialogue/accent coach on-set automatically guarantees a strong acting performance. (For the record, I've no problem with Mr. Sewell's French accent, and I think the guy was pretty much born to play villainous bastards in action movies like The Legend of Zorro.)
Four featurettes are also included:
Stunts (9:18) focuses on the craft services table, and the people who cook food for gaffers and assistant cameramen. Nah, just kidding; it's about stunts.
Playing with Trains (12:23) features our old Weta buddy Richard Taylor as he tries to get the climactic train explosion nailed down perfectly.
Armand's Party (12:00) centers on the big outdoor fiesta that kicks off the Legend story, with interview segments delivered by Antonio, Catherine, Martin, and hey, there are the screenwriters!
Visual Effects (5:47) deals with the CG work, both the more obvious examples and a few really subtle ones that you probably wouldn't have noticed without help.
There's also a collection of four deleted scenes with optional commentary from Mr. Campbell, a pair of multi-angle scene deconstructions, and a bunch of trailers for Open Season, Monster House, The Pink Panther, Memoirs of a Geisha, Sueno, The Gospel, and The Mask of Zorro.
(Inside the DVD case is an insert featuring a picture of Catherine Zeta-Jones that's so egregiously airbrushed she looks like Smallville's Kristen Kreuk mixed with a healthy dose of department store mannequin. I mention it only because it made me laugh, but here's a question: For what logical reason would you have to airbrush THAT face??)
To answer the standard sequel question: Nope, it's not as good as the first one. But considering how chintzy and auto-piloty most sequels are these days, I'll take what I can get. The Legend of Zorro is a semi-perfectly entertaining piece of adventure movie piffle, stocked with slick action, some strong humor, and enough colorful characters to keep the whole family entertained.
And Zorro Jr.? He's actually pretty cool!