Ten years have passed since the story told in The Mask of Zorro. In 1850, Don Alejandro de la Vega still plays the non-confrontational rich landowner in public while privately protecting his people from injustice as the famed Z-marking swordsmen. That includes mounting his trusty black steed Tornado to safeguard the ballots in a successful referendum for California to join the Union.
Now that the U.S. government will be providing law and order in California, Alejandro’s wife Elena is ready for him to give up the mask and settle down to raise their eight-year-old son, Joaquin. Marital schism ensues.
When two mysterious strangers discover Zorro’s identity and blackmail Elena with the truth, she unexpectedly divorces Alejandro and takes up with Armand, a wealthy French newcomer. Unaware of Elena’s true motives, Alejandro despairs over losing his family and spends several months in a drunken stupor. He finally recovers his old Zorro swagger, however, when he begins to suspect Armand is up to something. Said something involves a nasty, Bible-thumping hired gun; the impending American civil war; a plot for world domination; and lots of soap.
Meanwhile, Joaquin is beginning to show some flair for the family adventuring business. Alejandro and Elena must decide when and how to let him in on his father’s secret identity while keeping him out of the villain’s clutches.
The de la Vegas are a family in crisis. Elena wants them out of the all-consuming Zorro franchise, while Alejandro sees it as his calling. Meanwhile, young Joaquin worships Zorro (in the abstract) while assuming his flesh-and-blood father is a weak man who cares more about “business” than him. [Spoiler Warning] By the time the credits scroll, these familiar family struggles are both acknowledged and resolved (in spite of a brief period of divorce). Alejandro is willing to sacrifice his calling for his family; in turn, they support him in his ongoing mission. Husband and wife commit to each other anew in full view of their son. Dad promises never to lie to the boy again. Boy learns to respect his father. And, oh yeah, they all save the world in the process.
Allegiance to God and reliance on His support are claimed by villains and good guys alike. Armand belongs to an ancient “Christian” brotherhood called the Knights of Aragon that’s scheming to conquer America. McGivens, the film’s ugliest bad guy, sports a jagged cross-shaped scar on his cheek and boldly quotes Scripture, proclaiming himself to be doing “the Lord’s work” every time his kills Mexican-Americans. A hateful racist, he’s given to identifying himself with a vengeful God. Attempting to disrupt the Mexican-Californians voting in favor of becoming the 31st state, he says, “Babylon was burned to ashes for extending the empire to inferior races.” After referring to his twin guns as salvation and damnation (“you’ve got to die to experience either”), he prepares to kill an Hispanic family for their property with these words: “And the Lord shall expel them from the land.” Not quite as distasteful—or as ugly—is Joaquin’s teacher. But he’s worth noting here because he is a priest who is stern to the point of becoming a tyrant.
Meanwhile, Zorro’s confidant and best friend is also a Catholic priest, a jovial soul ready to duke it out with the baddies and given to occasional drinking (“I need one vice to stay in touch with sinners”). Despite such an exterior, he takes his office seriously. And Zorro himself is a man of faith, retreating to the Catholic church altar at one low point to yell at God for allowing his suffering and then quickly humble himself to ask God for the courage and strength to fulfill his calling one more time.
Elena’s period wardrobe emphasizes cleavage. She flirts with and kisses Armand (hinting that she wants to share his bed) while briefly divorced from Alejandro. Later, she kisses her husband more passionately when they are reunited. During his blue period, Alejandro awakens to find himself naked in bed after a night of drunken revelry in the local fountain. We see him from the waist up, but a smiling maid explains that she took off his wet clothes and does not look away while he tries to cover himself with a lamp. Entering the room, the priest tells her that he’ll expect to see her in confession. She agrees. While drunk, Alejandro comes up with an oblique euphemism for his sexual anatomy.
Adventure violence includes frequent and acrobatic sword fighting, fisticuffs, whip work and gunplay. Zorro regularly schools ubiquitous henchmen by sending them flying in every direction. An innocent farmer is shot in cold blood. A guy gets stabbed with a fiery poker. A drop of nitro lands on a man’s forehead (we hear the resulting explosion).
One cruel bad guy loses his teeth and gets a face full of cactus. His own boss later holds his head to a desk, pointedly threatening to cut out his tongue. A main character is shot at close range in the chest. Another innocent man is shot in the back and killed. Women and young children are threatened with lethal violence, though Zorro always rides to their rescue.
Most of the worst bad men meet their Maker in explosions large and small. One is pinnedto the cowcatcher of a runaway train that smashes into an obstacle and explodes. Young Joaquin also has some close calls while mixing it up with assorted scoundrels. In one instance, he causes a man to fall and severely crack his head, knocking the man unconscious.
The priest swears, saying “h—” once as a joke. Joaquin says “a–,” along with “son of a b–ch” in Spanish (spelled out in a subtitle). God’s name is infrequently misused.
The film is set in wine country, and many characters imbibe. When he thinks he’s lost his family, Alejandro becomes a drunk. At a party at a vineyard, he’s a loud, obnoxious and stupid drunk. As part of a deception, a pipe is purchased for Elena, and she later smokes it, coughing fitfully. Zorro’s horse smokes and drinks for comedic effect.
Joaquin, a little Zorro in the making, is strong-willed to a disrespectful fault. He makes a joke about sticking a hot poker up someone’s “butt.” And when his teacher is about to discipline another student, Joaquin hits the man in the backside with a slingshot leading to more disrespectful behavior as he is chased around the room. Later, he gives the local cops the same treatment while busting Dad out of jail. (Alejandro warns: “Don’t ever break anyone else out of jail again without my permission.”) Finally, the lad clearly disobeys his mom in the film’s big finish, a choice that enables him to save the day.
Alejandro sits in a public bath with several other dons, gambling on cards. While Alejandro and Elena are apart, Joaquin sees his mom kissing another man, which understandably upsets him.
Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones may have lost an athletic step or two since first they crossed swords, but director Martin Campbell compensates by keeping this story from ever taking itself too seriously, injecting lots of broad comedy, and often swinging the camera toward their irrepressible son (played with old-fashioned spunk by Adrian Alonso). In fact, in spite of its uneven tone and ridiculous plot, a lot of things about this film feel old-fashioned. With more of a Western flavor than the Spanish-drenched The Mask of Zorro (released in 1998), The Legend of Zorro features old-fashioned bad guys, an old-fashioned climax on a speeding train, and an old-fashioned feeling that the good guys will win and everything will be OK.
Legend also earns cheers for its ultimately heroic family themes, including the ideas that dads, moms, and kids all need to be honest with each other and prepared to make sacrifices to make a family work. But that’s not to say it’s a complete winner for families. Though she feels forced into it to protect her family and others, Elena divorces her husband and begins a relationship with another man. It’s exasperating to see another ugly racist villain quoting Scripture and claiming to be doing the work of the Lord. Few parents will want Junior to follow in Joaquin’s rebellious footsteps. And the drunkenness played for laughs sends kids a mixed message about abusing alcohol. So once again, Zorro‘s sword slices both ways; it does enough damage to give discerning families plenty of reason to give it a wide berth, but it doesn’t cut so deep as to repel those already fond of this re-emerging franchise.