Hippo Manchester
November 3, 2005

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Film: The Legend of Zorro (PG)
by Amy Diaz

Antonio Banderas swashbuckles through California as it verges on statehood in the shiny but limp The Legend of Zorro.

I like Zorro — he’s Batman with less angst and more salsa. And, depending on which version of the story you’ve seen or read before, Zorro’s exploits take place in a colonial/frontier California that looks not unlike the California of today with its mix of ethnicities and its Spanish-flavored culture. It’s a land of plenty where the rich and powerful threaten to enslave (economically at least) a farmer class of Mexicans. And serving as protector to these people is one of their own (sort of), a Latino avenger keeping California just. Heady stuff and a story tailor-made for the burgeoning middle class of the new majority-minority all over the American Southwest.

I can’t wait to see somebody do this story right. Unfortunately, it looks like I will have to wait a little longer.

Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Banderas) has carried on the Zorro duties lo these 10 years since the original The Mask of Zorro (10 years in movie time; 1998 was that movie’s actual release date). He and feisty damsel Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of that film have found some domestic bliss on their central coast ranch where they raise their scrappy son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). But the bliss is actually not so blissful — Elena mopes that Alejandro works too much, Zorro-wise, and that she’d like to do some traveling already. Alejandro (who shows off all of Banderas’ wrinkles and wear) wants to continue playing the hero as long as he can and stomps out of the hacienda like a teenager who’s been threatened with grounding. For the movie’s leftover-but-still-half-baked plot to work, Mom and Dad have to take some time apart, during which Elena appears to take up with a serpentine Frenchman named Armand (Rufus Sewell). At best, Armand is something of a dandy who wants Elena as a trophy and wants Alejandro out of his family’s life. But he shows shades of darker intentions, making Alejandro’s attempts to unmask him vital not only to his family’s future but to the future of the state and continental America.

Swords cross, ye olde rifles are fired inaccurately, horses are ridden on the tops of trains and Zeta-Jones gets to James Bond a bit herself in some really swell period costumes. Less a movie and more an amusement park of thrills and attractions, The Legend of Zorro doesn’t try too hard to keep its plot coherent or its dialogue believable. It’s all about moving you from one ride (The Scene Where Joaquin Shows Off His Junior Zorro Skills) to the next (Elena’s Wacky Attempts to Search a Mansion). We don’t get even the popcorn-movie nods to subtext that made the first movie such an action-adventure treat.

The Legend of Zorro is a sleepy attempt at creating a franchise — better the current keepers of the Zorro mythology find a new, young crusader and create an exciting new franchise for a growing market.  

Saw II (R)

Blood flows like spiked punch at an office Halloween party in the goretacular sequel Saw II.

And, much like an office Halloween party, Saw II has the unsettling feeling of work masquerading as fun. Sure, the memo said “Have a spooky good time!” but the rumor around the office is that the HR guy will be there to explain the cuts in your health benefits.

Saw II starts out with one of its self-mutilation-based eeeews — a young man can get the key to unlock the timer-controlled bear-trap-thing on his head only if he cuts out his own eye. He doesn’t, naturally, so we get to start with a nice bloody squish.

Investigating the scene of this crime, Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) gets drawn into the game set up by a serial killer Jigsaw. As with the first victim, all of Jigsaw’s “contestants” die in much the same way, having as the only alternative to death some horribly gory act they must commit on themselves or someone else. Matthews has apparently tracked Jigsaw for some time and finally captures the killer early in this movie but not before Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), at death’s door from cancer, can set in motion a “game” involving eight new contestants, one of whom is Matthews’ son. As the police and Jigsaw watch on video cameras, these contestants bumble through an old house trying to find the antidote to the nerve gas which is slowly killing them. Along the way, vials of the antidote come at the cost of assorted horrors (being burned alive, jumping into a pit of broken hypodermic needles) and Matthews must decide how best to break Jigsaw so he can save his son.

The saw itself, the one that gave the first movie its title, appears only briefly here. It’s a metaphorical sawing-off-of-your-feet-to-escape-your-chains that gives this film its extremely vague point. No matter, storytelling (whether it’s this particular movie or the connection of this story to the previous movie) is not particularly important. Mostly we just want to see a bunch of characters we’ll never bother to get to know die in horrible, painful, gory ways. And, honestly, the film’s got that. And Bell makes a truly creepy villain, untouchable because of the cancer-given death sentence already on his head. And all the atmospherics — the grunge-covered house, the blue-gray lighting — work to make the movie at least unpleasant and occasionally genuinely creepy.

What perhaps keeps Saw II from being a true standout in the horror genre (from being, for example, scary) is that it is so heavy with its own creepiness. We see the work, we see the effort that goes into making every gimmicky kill as gory as possible. Horror movies can be big, spectacular affairs, they can be funny or they can be campy. But they are only scary when the creeps come at you from unexpected places and have enough foundation in reality to make you believe, even for a split second, that all that stage blood could be real. Saw II is just a well-staged but still stagey haunted house.