The progress of the lethal but lovable Hispanic folk heroes in "The Mask of Zorro" may easily be charted by the facial hair, or lack thereof, adorning the handsome faces of the original Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) and young bandit Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), soon to follow in his mentor's footsteps as an expert "Z" slasher and aristocracy crasher.
The fiftysomething Zorro, after a brief prologue, emerges from prison shaggy haired and bearded beyond recognition. The dissipated Alejandro shows up likewise. Both are clean-shaven and dashing by the triumphant conclusion of this appealing date-movie confection of adventure, romance and comedy from executive producer Steven Spielberg and "GoldenEye" director Martin Campbell.
The Zorro legend, which began as pulp fiction in 1919, has undergone a similar transformation over time. A Douglas Fairbanks Sr. silent flick in 1920 was followed by serials in the '30s and '40s, a Tyrone Power film in 1940, a popular Disney television series beginning in 1957, an Italian-French movie in 1975 and 1981's campy "Zorro, the Gay Blade."
So Campbell, Hopkins and Banderas, who replaced the earlier, maybe grittier team of Robert Rodriguez ("Desperado"), Sean Connery and Andy Garcia, may not get the usual name-recognition benefit associated with remakes.
That means the filmmakers are free to experiment with the story's elements as they see fit, without fear of criticism. Who will remember enough about the other versions to complain, anyway? Thus the '90s incarnation of the Zorro saga is a little "Robin Hood" mixed with "My Fair Lady," dysfunctional family drama ("pop's an impostor, mom was murdered and my real dad's back for vengeance") juxtaposed with slapstick.
Zorro begins his modern screen appearance by using dazzling swordplay to save several unjustly imprisoned peasants from execution by Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson of "The Rock"), the retiring Spanish governor of Alta California. In return, the populist swashbuckler suffers the death of his wife, the adoption of his infant daughter Elena by the cartoonishly evil Montero, the burning of his home and imprisonment.
Twenty years later, Zorro escapes from jail. He needs the help of a young partner to foil the returning Montero's plans to buy California from Mexico's president, Santa Anna, and to rescue Elena, now an independently minded, raven-haired beauty played by Catherine Zeta-Jones (television's "The Titanic" miniseries).
Banderas, the "Evita" star who perfected his comic acting talents in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and four other films by Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar, makes a believably bumbling warrior with the unfortunate habit of jumping and missing his horse during otherwise daring escapes. He's particularly funny during a scene that has Alejandro impersonating a priest. Too bad Zeta-Jones, during the same confession-booth sequence, is burdened with stilted lines like "I'm afraid my heart is too wild."
The student-teacher scenes between Hopkins and Banderas are predictable, but marked by humorous exchanges, as Zorro puts his pal through the paces of swordsmanship, rope play, push-ups, good hygiene and charm. Alejandro, who begins with the knowledge that "the pointy end goes into the other man," is transformed into an expert saber wielder, tough enough to effectively duel his brother's killer, Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher).
"The Mask of Zorro" also benefits from numerous creatively staged battle sequences, filled with metallic clanking and inventive jabs and elbow punches, and relatively free of gore. Zorro's home and the governor's mansion, too, are beautifully rendered examples of architecture typical of that region in the 1850s, with decorative tile, wall-hanging torches and other touches strangely reminiscent of a place I once visited as a child. Ever been to the Mexico pavilion at Epcot?