Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

FLASHBACKS 8/4/98: Wanna know what I thought of "The Mask of Zorro"?

So I have reviews on my mind. Here's one I published August 4th, 1998 for The Mask of Zorro, both the film and its score by James Horner. Warning: I'm harsh on him. I am a film music geek. Know that as you read this. And I admit, mine was a minority opinion:

WARNING TO TITANIC FANS! This reviewer yet again rails on at obnoxious length about Titanic’s Oscar-winning music man, James Horner:

With an almost note-perfect cast, lots of satisfying swashbuckling, confident directing, and action you actually can follow on the screen, The Mask of Zorro just might make you smile.

But…it could have been a truly wild, exhilarating movie experience. Even I, not a Zorro fan, figured this could happen – but though Zorro swashbuckles with flair, sincerity and a cheeky grin, something keeps this latest summer adventure from reaching the heights of greatness, achieving merely real-goodness.

And a lot of the problem comes from the music. (Yes, again I’m indulging my fannish interest in movie music, but I’ll try to make a good point.)

Here’s what’s good: In the epic and just-this-side-of-mythic storyline – with the kind of family struggles that quietly and unobtrusively made me think of Star Wars – sly bandit Antonio Banderas evolves into the new Zorro, the black-masked bandit who fights for Mexico’s powerless. He is nurtured by the barrel-chested Anthony Hopkins, the former nobleman and original Zorro, and begins to fight the good fight.

You see, 20 years after Zorro’s heyday – which in this film coincides with the Spaniards finally leaving Mexico after the revolution – Hopkins and Banderas must keep an ambitious governor, a renegade American military officer and several nobles from turning California into a nation in a way that cruelly exploits the Mexicans who were living there in the 1800s.

To make things more interesting, there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones as the delectable Elaina – the stolen daughter of the first Zorro (stolen by the governor as a baby) and the combative eventual lover of the second Zorro. Oh my yes, she’s good – concerned, assertive, able to use guns and swords for what’s right, and quite smoldering. She’s never a damsel in distress! She’s as much part of the action as Hopkins and Banderas!

The smaller details are often fun, too. Great, grizzled old actor L.Q. Jones – a veteran of films ranging from The Wild Bunch to 1997’s The Edge as well as the writer-director of the film A Boy and His Dog – has good moments as the colorful supporting character Three-Fingered Jack. Banderas trying to deal with a new horse is frequently hilarious. And the film just looks great; the Mexican scenery is beautiful and the cool sets are cleanly designed, not designed to show off.

So why two-and-a-half out of five stars?

The music, darn it.

It’s almost all wrong.

In a long column dissecting the career and M.O. of film composer James Horner, now a huge (or should we say hay-YEWJ) name after selling over 25 million Titanic CDs, I noted that Horner – Zorro’s composer – rarely did comedy films. (I can only think of one that wasn’t for kids, the romantic comedy Once Around with Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss, and that was more a “hmmm” kind of comedy than a “that’s wacky” kind of comedy.)

Finally I know why. He can’t do funny.

Now The Mask of Zorro, for being a fairly serious adventure film, has a bunch of witty, goofy and funny moments: an early fight between a drunk Banderas and a bored Hopkins, the training of the new Zorro, some wily bandits playing a ruse, or the demolishing of a hacienda and the toughs who live there. Horner’s original score tries mightily to join in the fun, but the music rarely reaches the right mood in these scenes. So something small but vital just sits there, leaden, making each mock-dramatic shrug by Antonio not as funny or entertaining as it should be.

(More straightforward Zorro music, for the drama and swashbuckling, keeps up the pace and work a lot better…but the melodies here aren’t nearly different enough from other films’ catchy themes, and Horner again quotes verbatim from his other scores. As when Glory showed up in the middle of Braveheart, his Willow music comes back in Zorro; don’t ask me why. And the first phrase of the love theme is the opening theme from Fargo with one changed note! Yes, the music does work on an emotional level, but if one actually listens to it there’s not much musical rhyme or reason – just lots of notes. D’oh!)

Oh, what a composer like Michael Kamen could have done with the movie. He could’ve made the funny moments funnier, the romance more romantic, the tragic sincerity of the “save the prisoners!” finale more tragic and sincere – and make it all hang together as an emotionally true and logical film score. But Kamen’s a wonderful, lusty romantic (listen to Don Juan DeMarco or Brazil), and Horner…isn’t. Or he’s much less of one. And the music needed to be as romantic as it could be.

In a film as well cast as this one, a misstep in hiring a composer may seem like small potatoes, but it’s important! (It doesn’t help that Horner and lyricist Will Jennings have yet again done a love song like they did for Titanic, which seems too much like trying to duplicate that film’s uber-success.)

So I didn’t get completely swept up in The Mask of Zorro. There is entertainment here and some great horse action, but the whole film could easily have been so much more. (Other gripes: the first tragic-sincere scene, about what Hopkins lost 20 years before, just doesn’t express the gravity of what happened, despite music that almost cries. And the governor shouldn’t have first revealed his plans for California so casually; the film treats this like a major revelation, even though he says it to a mob of peasants before revealing his plans to the nobles! Oops.)

So to sum up, this could have been so perfect. Antonio Banderas just exudes cool, and I meowed over Catherine Zeta-Jones, and I even bought Anthony Hopkins as a Mexican. But the final film is just acceptable.

I’ll go listen to my Don Juan DeMarco CD now.

2007 extra thought: To be a little more fair, I'll admit that Horner's score for Sneakers is jaunty and works well, both for the comedy and for the drama (like the theme for Ben Kingsley's character).
Tags: film reviews, flashbacks, music

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