THE NEGOTIATOR - SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
PI
- THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
THE MASK OF ZORRO - MAFIA!


THE NEGOTIATOR

Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is the best hostage negotiator in his Chicago police department. When his partner is murdered after beginning to confide dangerous information pertaining to an Internal Affairs investigation, Danny finds himself framed for the crime. In desperation, Danny takes Internal Affairs Chief Niebaum (J.T. Walsh), his assistant, good friend and Deputy Police Chief Frost (Ron Rifkin) and a petty criminal (Paul Giamatti) hostage in order to bring out the truth in "The Negotiator."

Laura LAURA:
"The Negotiator" plays like a life-and-death chess match between two masters. When Danny takes his hostages, his first demand is that a negotiator from the opposite end of the city, Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), be called in to work the situation. Danny knows just how the game is played and wastes no time foiling his colleagues' attempts to gain 'eyes and ears' into his domain. He also knows his best chance is to convince an outsider that there's more to this than meets the eye.

The script, based on a real life St. Louis incident, by newcomers James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, deftly balances tension, humor and action. We're introduced to Sabian at his home, 'negotiating' a resolution to a tiff between his wife and daughter. Danny's already been established as an ace negotiator in the film's opening scene, but he's able to spell out the rules to Officer Farley, the rattled policeman who tries to keep him on the phone - when Danny tells Farley he must never say 'no' to a hostage taker, Farley can't seem to stop saying it. DeMonaco and Fox have written great lines for their two leads, only stumbling by too obviously setting up the audience to believe guilt lies where it doesn't.

Jackson's always been an intense actor and he exudes strength and conviction here. Kevin Spacey is a delight, coming into the midst of a situation he doesn't understand and immediately taking control. These two are a smart film pairing and their intense psychological cat and mouse repartee is the best thing about the movie.

The supporting cast, featuring character actors too numerous to mention, is also strong. The late J.T. Walsh is the human embodiment of a weasel as Internal Affairs Chief Niebaum with his pasty face and shifty eyes. Paul Giamatti (Pig Vomit in "Private Parts") is fun as the credit card scammer who starts off as a terrified hostage and gradually becomes one of Roman's main supporters (shades of "Dog Day Afternoon"). Regina Taylor ("I'll Fly Away") is a strong presence as Danny's new wife, the type of role that's usually thankless.

Director F. Gary Gray ("Set It Off") does an impressive job with his third, and biggest, film. He may be the anti-Michael Bay ("Armageddon," "The Rock"), keeping his film true, believable and intelligent while not stinting on the larger aspects of the production.

B


SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

The emotional devastation of an Iowa farm wife when she receives, on the same day, notice of the death of three of her four sons, lost in battle, is the catalyst that propels Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his hand-picked squad of seven men on a journey across the hedgerows of Normandy to find and bring out Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), the last remaining son, in Steven Spielberg's World War Two epic, "Saving Private Ryan."

Robin ROBIN:
Director Spielberg starts "Saving Private Ryan" off with 24 minutes of the most realistic, violent chaos of battle that I have ever seen outside of documentary footage of war. Spielberg, using the viewpoint and perspective of a single platoon of GIs in their Higgins boat heading into the deadly maelstrom of Omaha Beach on D-Day, succeeds in concentrating the utter mayhem of the invasion onto a few scant yards of beach-head from the soldiers' viewpoint. The fear of death, the physical reaction to the bound-to-be-horrible landing, the abruptness of death as German machine gun bullets tear the soldiers apart as they crawl up the beach to more carnage, are shown in such a way to stun the viewer. The butchery of war and its random selection of its victims is concentrated into these few minutes of celluloid with such graphic, unrelenting violence that some may find it to be too much to watch. As a date flick, "Titanic" it ain't.

Once the landing sequence is over, "Saving Private Ryan" takes on a more conventional tone as it follows Miller and his squad on their mission across France to find the title character. This is a mission typical of many war films and the classic TV series "Combat." There is the usual banter among men who have survived together under fire, with the darkly edged gallows humor masking the anxiety and fear every man feels every minute of every day.

I've been trying to figure out which of the great war films "Saving Private Ryan" most closely resembles, from "Battleground" to "Stalingrad" to "A Midnight Clear." All are powerful films about men in war, but the one that is structured more like ""Ryan" is the great Lewis Milestone World War II film, "A Walk in the Sun." Both films begin with an invasion ("A Walk..." takes place in Italy), then a journey to the final, climactic battle. "A Walk in the Sun" is a more even effort. "Saving Private Ryan" doesn't start with just a bang, but with a devastating barrage. The opening minutes are so relentless that the rest of the film is taken down a notch, losing the intensity of the opening as the filmmakers hunker down to tell the story.

One problem I have lays in the development of personalities of the members of the squad, led by Hanks' Captain John Miller. The stars - Hanks, Tom Sizemore and Ed Burns - are developed as characters, mainly Hanks as Miller. The rest of the squad are two dimensional characters with a quirk or two apiece, but you never really get to know them. (By comparison, "A Walk in the Sun" and "Battleground" flesh out all the rifle squad members into three-dimensional people, all with past lives, loves and futures.) Spielberg's squad members (Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi) are more generic and lack the personality to allow the audience to know and care about them. Jeremy Davies gives a strong supporting performance as the scared, almost cowardly, non-combatant interpreter Corporal Upham.

Acting is tops across the board with Hanks giving an expected fine performance as the enigmatic, likable Captain Miller. The rest of the cast are solid if not remarkable. Ed Burns stands out as the unit's cynic and the first one to question the sense of sending eight men to possible death to find, maybe, one man. Tom Sizemore as the Sarge is a stabilizing force and protector of his captain. The rest of the generic-looking crew give good, background performances.

Tech credits, from A to Z, are the best you can find. Cinematography by Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski ("Schindler's List") is magnificent - the battle sequences were shot with a documentary-camera style giving the scenes a jerky realism not seen in feature film - and always excellent. The unsaturated colors of the film stock give the film a period look in keeping with the whole film. Costume design by Joanna Johnston ("Contact"), production design by Tom Sanders ("Braveheart"), editing by Academy Award-winner Michael Kahn ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Schindler's List") and music by Spielberg favorite John Williams are on a par with the director's prolific talents.

"Saving Private Ryan" is a first-class war movie with some absolutely brilliant, gut-wrenching moments, especially the beginning minutes. It gets routine, but sustains its 160 minute run time with obvious deft ability and entertainment, albeit with some of the most graphic violence I've ever seen. A must see for the war film buff. I give it an A-.

Laura LAURA:
"Saving Private Ryan" opens as a senior citizen hurriedly totters up a path towards a Normandy war memorial as his wife, son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren trail behind him. Both he and the audience are struck by row upon row of white crosses stretching as far as the eye can see, a dazzling display of symmetry. Spielberg dissolves to the steel crosses lining Omaha beach meant to spear American landing craft on June 6, 1944. It's a stunning image.

The next 25 minutes plunge us into the midst of the slaughter of American soldiers completely unprotected from German machine guns which preceding air strikes failed to destroy. When the landing crafts' doors fall open, the first ten or so men are ripped apart by bullets before they're even able to move. Soldiers laden with gear scramble over the sides and back of the boat and plunge into the sea where bullets continue a balletic dance underwater, finding more victims in water stained red. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and six of his men make it to the beach strewn with dead. A dazed soldier is looking for something and finds it - his arm. Another soldier is jolted when a bullet pings off his helmet. He takes it off and stares at it in amazement and the back of his unprotected head explodes. Another soldier lying in the sand is crying for his mother as he tries to keep his intenstines from spilling out of his body. This is masterful filmmaking. War is hell, indeed, and it's never been shown like this before.

Living from one fleeting moment to the next, Miller and his men, Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Private Reiben (Edward Burns), Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel) and Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) make their way up the sloping dunes and manage to firebomb a gun bunker. They've survived against incredible odds.

Captain Miller is given his new assignment. One of the 101st airborne, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), must be found in an area heavily manned by the enemy to be returned home as the last surviving son, his three older brothers all having been killed in combat. Miller recruits Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), a scared rabbit of a young man, for his German and French language skills, to complete his outfit. Here is the film's central conflict - is the life of one worth risking eight?

The unit sets out and in the manner of such classic World War II films as "A Walk in the Sun" and "Battleground," have a series of encounters with other soldiers, the enemy and civilians. One encounter with a downed pilot mirrors their own mission when we learn that he lost his twenty-two passengers because, unbeknownst to him, the general he was transporting had had his seat reinforced with steel, the weight of which brought the plane down. They find Private Ryan quickly, but he's not the Ryan they're looking for. When they eventually do find Ryan, it's when they're not looking for him - Hill and his remaining five men have been assisted by a group of unseen Americans in taking down a German tank.

Ryan refuses to leave his unit, which is assigned to guard a bridge. It's to the film's credit that the audience can fully understand how under the incomprehensible conditions of war a soldier can form closer bonds with his fellow fighting men than with his own blood kin.

The film ends as Hill and Ryan's units join forces to defend the bridge from a German tank patrol with meager munitions. This battle is almost gut-wrenchingly brutal as the opening sequence.

Spielberg can't resist morphing back to his present day framing device where the older Ryan delivers a sentimental speech. It's one of the film's very few drawbacks, totally unnecessary. As with his "Schindler's List," Spielberg must hammer home his point when he's already made it more than clear far more effectively in telling his story.

Acting is effective all around, with Hank's mysterious Hill a standout. In one of the film's running gags, his men have a pool going with the winner being the man who can get Hill to tell them where he's from. To the screenplay's credit, Hill reveals his background to defuse a conflict among his men, when Reiben is threatening to desert and the Sarge is threatening to kill him for doing so. This nice bit of writing effectively displays the innate leadership Hill possesses, while we learn the reason he's withheld the information was for fear that his men would think less of his abilities if they knew he was a school teacher.

Jeremy Davies ("Spanking the Monkey") has the film's other complex character in Upham. He's frozen with fear and reviled by the others when he shows a captured German sympathy, convincing Hill to let him go. His performance evokes conflicting emotions when, hearing Mellish, the only man who's offered him friendship, in a fight to the death, Davies breaks down on a staircase, too terrified to save him. When Upham encounters his released German in combat, Davies manages to look like he's aged ten years within seconds. He's on my short list for a Best Supporting Actor nod.

Edward Burns' Reiben also has a life-changing moment. He's been steely and morose - the most vocal disbeliever in their mission. When Private Ryan manages to gain his respect, the glance the two exchange speaks volumes. Damon fleshes Ryan out well in his brief amount of screen time. Sizemore is the stock, loyal-to-his-captain to a fault, soldier as Sarge.

Steven Spielberg, whose childhood 8 millimeter films dealt with the World War II themes he saw on television, has matured to create a World War II classic.

A-


PI

Max Cohen is searching for the number which will reveal the pattern of all life. Paranoid, he stays holed up in his dingy apartment filled with components of his home-made computer, Euclid, except for visits to his former professor for games of Go. When Euclid crashes and spits out a 216 digit number with its last gasp, Max doesn't see any meaning in it and tosses the printout into a park trash barrel. It's recovered, however, and soon Max is being hunted by two fanatical factions - a group of Wall Street analysts and a Hassidic Kabbalah sect searching for the name of God in the mystical Torah.

Laura LAURA:
Harvard grad Darren Aronofsky, who's startling directorial debut won him the Director's prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, has presented us with a science fiction film that plays like "Eraserhead" crossed with "Searching for Bobby Fischer," spiked with a dash of "Clean, Shaven."

The film, shot in extremely contrasty, grainy black and white, is a paranoid thriller with a fascinating central concept, that all existence can be explained mathemetically, but that those who get close to finding the answer are physically overwhelmed by the experience. Max's professor Sol (played by Mark Margolis) constantly encourages the young man to take a break from his work, step back from it. In an amusing scene, he relates the tale of Archimedes' discovery of matter dispersion with a concluding moral that Max needs a wife! He hides the fact that he also once came across a 216 digit number during his Pi research and consequently suffered a delibating stroke. (His return to his research proves fatal.)

Max (Newton native Sean Gullette) suffers from more than paranoia - his frequent migraines are accompanied by nose bleeds - or is he going mad? His hallucinatory subway experiences feature blood and a human brain. His obsession may have been brought about by his having dared to stare at the sun at the age of six (because his mother told him not to), resulting in temporary blindness and maybe something unexplained (the sun being a circle, after all).

The imagery of "Pi" is stunning. Kinetic jump cuts propel Max through Chinatown, closeups of ants (the literal bug in Max's computer) seem geometrical, a simple rectangle is given incredible power, a Go board seems to hold the meaning of life. The pulsing electric synthesizer score by Clint Mansell hauntingly empower the pictures before us, at times becoming, appropriately, headache inducing.

"Pi" is an intellectual treat and the debut of a unique voice.

B

Robin ROBIN:
In an original and startling debut, writer/director Darren Aronofsky makes mathematics the center of Max Cohen's (Sean Gullette) universe in this unique sci-fi thriller called "Pi." The title symbol, denoting the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, takes on both economic and religious overtones as the paranoid Max tries to break the most chaotic jumble of numbers - The Stock Exchange. His mission, with the aid of his own personal super-computer named Euclid, is to make sense out of the Exchange. As he draws nearer his goal, the factions - Wall Street and the Kabbalah - both pursue the genius, driving him further into madness.

Max, from the beginning, is constantly being solicited by a high-powered Wall Street firm who wants all the information on the market he can deduce. The solicitations are, at first, fairly benign in the form of phone calls to arrange a meeting with the firm's Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart). These calls and confrontations take an increasingly frantic tone as Max is stalked by the mysterious Dawson and her henchmen, who will stop at nothing to get the information that will give them domination over the stock market.

Contrasting the Wall Street intrigue, Max is also confronted by Lenny Myer (Ben Shenkman), a Hasidic Jew who shares Max's interest in numbers, but for a very different reason. Lenny brings Max to the attention Rabbi Cohen (Stephen Pearlman), the head of a Kabbalah sect whose members believe that numbers are the key to the Torah, and, if Max can decipher THE 216 numbers specified in that tome, the true name of God will be revealed. The pressure brought on Max by these disparate factions forces Max to race to break the enigmatic code before he goes completely mad.

"Pi" has to be one of the most visually original first features that I have ever seen. Using high contrast black and white film gives the movie a starkness that colors everything, quite literally, in black and white. Shades of gray are as far removed from the visual aspect of the film as they are from the script. Aronofsky makes no attempt to stray from his most definitely subjective story and uses the film's look as a character in the drama surrounding Max. The extreme contrast of the film lends a sustained sinister note through the story.

Acting, for a film with a $60,000 budget, is remarkably deft and professional. Sean Gullette, a newcomer, resembles John Turturro in both looks and intensity. As Max, he is perfect as the paranoid genius who may really be on the verge of discovering the key to the universe, or, at least one that will cause the domination of the world economy if in the wrong hands. Veteran actors Mark Margolis ("Scarface") as Max's friend and mathematical mentor Sol and Pearlman as the mysterious, fanatical Rabbi bring depth to their characters and help enormously in giving the film its capable feel. Ben Shenkman as Lenny is amusing in an eerie way.

The mathematics of the film's story and driving "industrial" score, neither of which I am fond of, lend to its kinetic energy, but sapped me mentally with its edginess.

"Pi" is an ambitious, stylish and intriguing first effort by Aronofsky and director of photography Matthew Libatique. If you're of a mind for an offbeat but fascinating film, give it a shot. I give it a B


THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY

Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) is a loser. Once, at 17, that luck changed for a brief moment when he met Mary Jenson, a beautiful high-schooler who asked him to the senior prom after Ted protected her retarded brother, Warren (W. Earl Brown), from a bully. On the night of the prom, magic is in the air - until Ted accidentally catches, really catches, his family jewels in his zipper, losing his chance for romance. Thirteen years later, Ted is still pining over Mary when he decides to hire a private detective, Pat Healy (Matt Dillon), to find her in "There's Something About Mary."

Robin ROBIN:
"There's Something About Mary" is a genial, goofy, slapstick comedy that suffers greatly from that phenomenon plaguing the theaters lately - traileritis! That's when virtually every gag and joke in a film is shown in the theater preview, ala "Liar Liar." "...Mary" is a real victim of this disease, with ALL gags telegraphed in the preview. This practice hurts the surprise element so crucial to a comedy.

Cameron Diaz gives a good-natured performance as a down-to-earth, beautiful young woman who is the object of everyone's desire. Mary is the perfect woman for the man who dreams to hear his date say, "You want to come up and watch SportsCenter?" She is a buoyant person, if a little dense in her selection of men, who has a perennial smile on her face and the best of thoughts for those around her. I bet she drinks beer from the bottle, too. What a woman!.

Ben Stiller, as the poor schmuck Ted, gives a solid comic performance as a man whose whole life, following his tragic prom night, is mired in insecurity and obsession for Mary. Stiller weathers the indignities heaped upon Ted - including being arrested as part of a police roundup of homosexual perverts and jailed in a cell with an affectionate Bubu-like character - as he tries to find the woman of his dreams.

Matt Dillon is greasy fun as the slimy, conscience-less private eye, Healy, who will use every deceit, from electronic eaves-dropping to stalking, to woo Mary and steal her affection. Dillon isn't a great comic talent, but at least appears to have fun in the role.

Chris Elliott as the allergic-reacting turncoat friend of Ted and Lee Evans ("Funny Bones") as a pizza delivery guy posing as an crippled architect are also rivals for Mary's affections and are stalking her, too. Evans gets to do some artful slapstick work on crutches that is a high point of the film. Lin Shaye as Mary's sun-wizened next door neighbor, Magda, is amusing in a melanoma-impaired way.

The story, by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, and adapted with directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly, is a loose shell of obsession, longing and perseverance, but is mainly a collection of the sight gag seen in the trailer. I won't bother listing them. The forte of the Farrelly boys - visual, sometimes raunchy, humor - is in ample supply. The big gross-out joke is not nearly as bad as the finale of the infamous "Pink Flamingos," but elicits the anticipated "Yuck!" from the audience. Also, for the second time this summer, we get to see a man perform CPR on an animal (see "Dr. Dolittle").

Production values are nothing more than routine, but this is expected.

"There's Something About Mary" would have benefited its audience if the element of surprise was left intact. It would have been, for me, more of a fun experience. I give it a C+.

Laura LAURA:
Duxbury's Farrelly brothers (of "Dumb and Dumber" and "Kingpin" fame) try romantic gross-out comedy this time out with "There's Something About Mary." Mary (Cameron Diaz) seems to bewitch all those that cross her path. Bizarrely enough, only lying losers seem to do so, with the possible exception of Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller), whose lies are at least those of the white variety.

"There's Something About Mary" features one of the year's best trailers. As is usually the case, however, the trailer showcases most of the film's funniest scenes. While there are still more to be found in the film itself, most of the screen time is given to the plot. Strip away the admitted howlers and there's not really too much of substance left.

Ted wins Mary's favor by defending her mentally handicapped brother and she rewards him by asking him to escort her to the prom. Stiller, sporting a mouthful of braces, a bad 80's haircut and a group of unpopular friends, can't believe his good fortune. He's a genuinely sweet guy, however. When he arrives to pick up his date he's raked over the coals by Mary's black stepfather. Upon retiring to the bathroom, he unwittingly catches sight of Mary's mother helping her dress and panicking, gets a certain part of his anatomy caught in his zipper (and yes, they do show it!). He then suffers the indignity of being seen in this state by practically the entire neighborhood before being rushed to the hospital.

Years later, Ted still pines for Mary, who he never saw again as her family moved to Florida that long ago summer. His friend Dom (Chris Elliott) puts him in touch with Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) to look her up. His ensuing trip to Florida includes an arrest for indecent gay public behavior and serial killing before he's rescued by Dom and arranges a random encounter with his beloved, who has been seeing the slimy Pat Healy.

The yucks include Mary's next door neighbor Magda (Lin Shaye), a grotesquely tanned and shrivelled alcoholic with a pet terrier who's used like a divining rod to determine the true nature of Mary's beaus. Dillon's smarm is entertaining as he uses information acquired by eavesdropping to become Mary's perfect man ('I work with retards.') The great Lee Evans ("Funny Bones," underutilized in "Mouse Hunt") is on hand as Mary's protective friend who provides handicapped slapstick with crutches. I won't give away the most outrageous scene, but Diaz sure comes through as a guy's gal kind of a good sport for going along with it. The Farrellys even have their own take on the Greek chorus, with Jonathan Richman appearing throughout the action to sing atonal, silly songs that sum up the current action.

"There's Something About Mary" is one of the weirdest romantic comedies around, combining scatalogical and no taste humor with naivety and sweetness. It's just a little too schizophrenic to completely work, but Stiller's charming and the laughs are there if you're willing to lower your brow.

B-


THE MASK OF ZORRO

Anthony Hopkins is Don Diego de la Vega, a wealthy aristocrat who doubles as the masked Zorro, protector of Californian peasants from Spanish oppression in the figure of Governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson). When Montero discovers Zorro's identity, he comes to arrest him at his home. De la Vega fights Montero and Montero's men inadvertently kill Diego's wife, whom Montero had also loved. Montero imprisons De la Vega and kidnaps his infant daughter Elena.

Twenty years later, Montero returns to further rape the people and land of California. De la Vega escapes and takes on a protege, Alejandro (Antonio Banderas), a young thief who once helped him, to train him in the art of being Zorro.

Laura LAURA:
"The Mask of Zorro" is a fun, swashbuckling adventure featuring another great performance from Anthony Hopkins and two simmeringly playful performances from Antonio Banderas as Zorro's protege and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the adult Elena.

Hopkins is introduced as Zorro, about to rescue three peasants from hanging in the public square. When he's spied by two young admirers (Alejandro and his older brother), Hopkins makes his first indelible impression as his blue eyes almost literally pop through his black mask.

After the film establishes it's setup, it jumps twenty years later and the adult Alejandro, along with his older brother and an even older co-conspirator attempt to make fools of the Spanish Army while stealing their payroll. They almost succeed, but the friend is captured, the elder brother is killed and Alejandro escapes, vowing vengeance on the Captain. (Alejandro now has his own arch-enemy, as does Zorro.)

Zorro meets up with Alejandro and recognizes him as the young boy from twenty years earlier. Banderas is a cocky, uncouth lout initially, which adds a lot of humor to the proceedings as he's whipped into shape by Zorro. Alejandro, impersonating a Spanish aristocrat, infiltrates Montero's inner circle and learns of his plan to buy California with gold secretly being stolen from this same land. (He also gets to make quite the impression by dancing a sexy tango with the wildly erotic Elena, who's also fancied by the Captain Alejandro's sworn to kill.)

Hopkins is a commanding and believable Zorro. He's also quite touching as he slowly reconnects with his daughter, Elena, who believes Montero is her father. Banderas is dashing and handles the physical stunts and swordplay well (his instructor has stated that Banderas was his best movie pupil since Errol Flynn!) Zeta-Jones should attain stardom with her feature debut and she's no slouch with a sword either. (The film features a swordfight between her and Banderas that turns into a sexy striptease.)

Direction by Martin Campbell ("Goldeneye") is assured, if a bit indulgent in a few scenes - the film would have benefitted greatly by a fifteen minute trim. Location photography in Mexico, sets and costume are all on target. Hair styling for the two lead actors is actually amusing as the two seem to change their looks about a dozen times a piece throughout the film. The score resembles "Braveheart's" at times, if stripped of its Spanish cliches, but it does the job.

The script is a bit problematic, leaving some logic holes (how do Zorro and Alejandro finance their plot? why do they single-handedly fight for 500 locked up peasants if freeing them first could have put an army at their disposal?) that most audiences may not notice if they're swept away by the action. It was a good idea, however, to base the story on a master-teacher relationship, and the younger Zorro's inexperience, especially with his wild black horse, was a great way to add some laughs.

B

Robin ROBIN:
"The Mask of Zorro," by director Martin Campbell ("GoldenEye"), is the fourth big-screen rendition of the legendary masked man first created in 1919 by police reporter and pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley (There were also the old Republic Films serials, the 1981 parody "Zorro: The Gay Disney TV series starring Guy Williams Blade," and the terrific 1950's as the other caped crusader.) This big-budget version stars two Zorros, old and new, played by Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas, respectively, Catherine Zeta-Jones as the beautiful Elena and Stuart Wilson as the devious Don Rafael Montera.

This new version once again tells the classic tale of one man's fight against oppression in, first, Spanish-, then, Mexican-owned California in the first half of the 1800's. The film opens with first Zorro, a younger-looking Hopkins as Don Diego de la Vega, risking his life to save three innocent peasants being executed as rebels by the evil governor Don Rafael in a plot to capture the caped avenger. Zorro escapes the trap only to be taken at his home, where his adored wife Esperanza is accidentally killed. Don Diego is imprisoned for 20 years before escaping and setting his own revenge into play, enlisting Alejandro Murrieta (Banderas) as his protege.

The principle cast are all up to the daunting physical tasks, from swordfights to horseback chases to swashing buckles. Banderas shows amazing skill with a sword as he battles multiple enemies and, in one bit, does two-handed battle against a pair of opponents. Zeta-Jones is quite competent with a sword against Banderas' Zorro in what the production crew called "the sexy swordfight." Hopkins mastered both the sword and the bullwhip for his portrayal of Don Diego de la Vega.

Banderas, after the less-than-successful "Assassins" and "Two Much," was in need of a good star vehicle. He gets lucky here and performs as if he realizes his good luck. Buckling the swash in a way approaching Errol Flynn, Antonio is up for the action and handles the slapstick as the inept student with aplomb. The romance between him and Zeta-Jones has sparks, too.

Hopkins is relaxed and comfortable as the mentor to his replacement. His Yoda-like training of his substitute crusader is done with humor and precision. Hopkins lends his sophistication and talent to the role, making Don Diego an equal to his younger co-star.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is dazzling as the smart, tough Elena, who believes she's the daughter of the evil Montera but is, in fact, the spawn of Don Diego. She is fiery in her integrity, caring about the plight of the peasants, and handles a sword better than most of the men around her. She gives a nice, assured debut lead performance

The script is the weakness of "The Mask of Zorro." The oppression of the peasants is not really dealt with except in a couple of big crowd scenes, so the reason for all the brouhaha is unclear. While the martial arts training is competently depicted, Alejando's "education" as a gentleman and socially graceful individual are left to the imagination. An elaborate dance number with Banderas and Zeta-Jones is out of context with what we know of the young Alejandro. The couple sure look good, though.

Production values - costume by Graciela Mazon, production design by Cecilia Montiel, photography by Phil Meheux, and location selection - are all first-rate, giving the film the period look and feel that compliment the story. There is more than a passing nod to "Batman" in the film, especially in the Batcave-like sequences where Zorro-One trains Zorro-two. The massive gold-mine explosion at the film's climax is grand in scale, but does not blend with the rest of the story with its high tech pyrotechnics and implausible timing. The high tech ending is out of keeping with the rest of the film's more traditional action.

Some judicious editing of "The Mask of Zorro" to trim back its 136 minute run time would have been prudent, but it was fun anyway and I give it a B.


MAFIA!

Spoofmeister Jim Abrahams is at it again, this time poking fun at gangster movies in "Mafia!" starring, in his last performance, the late Lloyd Bridges as mob boss Don Vincenzo Cortino. Now in his twilight years, after a gangland attempt on his life, the Don decides to retire. But, who should fill the old Don's shoes - psycho number one son, Joey (Billy Burke), or war hero number two son, Anthony (Jay Mohr)? This begins an unusual parody of some of the great gangster films from "The Godfather" to "GoodFellas."

Robin ROBIN:
Jim Abrahams has the comedy/parody formula honed to a fine art with his past oeuvre of "Airplane!," the "Naked Gun" films, "Top Secret," and the "Hot Shots" duo. In "Mafia!" all is fair in farce. It spoofs, besides the obvious "Godfather" movies, anything that comes within striking distance - "E.T." "A Christmas Carol," "Casino," "GoodFellas," "Striptease," "Forrest Gump," and a combination of "Showgirls" and "Jaws" (a hilarious bit that, finally, justifies having sat through "Showgirls"), and more.

In tradition with the style that Abrahams has gained through his years of making comedy film, the gags are fast and furious. If you don't like one joke, wait a couple of seconds and you'll get another. As expected, most laughs are chuckles, but there are a couple of belly laughs, too. One scene combines the wedding scene from "The Godfather" with the assassination attempt on Don Corleone, also from "The Godfather," into a bullet-riddled dance featuring Bridges doing the macaraina - a truly goofy moment. With the exception of a couple of minor groaners, the staccato pace of the gags is well sustained for the film's 86 minute run time.

Acting is not what these films are about, but the tone the actors give helps the humor. Rather than cutting up, the lead characters play their roles pretty straight, allowing the gags, not their reactions, to entertain the audience. Jay Mohr, as the Michael Corleone clone, and Christina Applegate as his love interest, Diane, are the straight-men for everyone else. Lloyd Bridges, as Don Vincenzo, gets to deliver the broad jokes and sight gags with obvious pleasure. I will miss the bumbling humor of the man.

The production design for the movie is first rate, with "The Godfather" acting as the template for the film's look, both modern and in flashback.

"Mafia!" is not going to challenge the intellect of any except the simplest of us, but, as a goof on a hot summer night, it will keep you amused for an hour and a half. I give it a B-.


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