Judging by the poor quality of this summer's blockbusters, you'd expect The Mask Of Zorro to be little more than a plot-lite, quip-packed string of lavishly staged action sequences. But it isn't. Where Lost In Space was rushed and muddled, Zorro is well-paced and balanced. Where Godzilla was shallow, Zorro impresses with admirable depth. It's imaginative and lively, and is easily the most enjoyable action/adventure of the year.
Admittedly it's slightly too long, but this stirring sabre-swisher stabs enough of the right cinematic buttons to prevent you caring about the running time. In revamping the turn-of-the-century vigilante, GoldenEye director Martin Campbell has boosted the Z-carving fiction with Bond-style energy.
Retaining the trademark Zorroisms from the '50s TV show (dual personality, black mask, Tornado the trusty black stallion...), the movie superbly meshes a witty script with eye-widening set-pieces and lush frontier cinematography in an epic, spectacular fashion. Out go the blam-blam of auto-firing handguns we've come to expect of most big-budget actioners, and in comes the swish and clash of sparking swords.
But it's a slow starter that takes an hour to spin the background story. And although the sluggish pace is regularly accelerated by bursts of measured action, romance and comedy, the dally is deliberate: by the time the main storyline kicks in, The Mask Of Zorro boasts five fully-rounded characters waiting to take part.
As the fabled Mexican musketeer, Antonio Banderas more than makes up for a long line of duff movies with a performance that finally justifies his star status. Anthony Hopkins - the wise Batman to Banderas's feisty Robin - laps up the chance to play an ageing action hero, and Catherine Zeta Jones is all sultry sexiness and unchained vigour as his long-lost daughter.
Letting the side down ever so slightly is Stuart Wilson's sneering Spaniard, who lacks the sort of sharply defined cruel streak required for the oozing of melodramatic menace. He's a pale shadow of Alan Rickman's memorable Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, and isn't helped by Matthew Letscher's cissy henchman, a clichéd yes-man who exists only to give Banderas' character someone to direct his own anger at (Captain Love murdered Murieta's brother). But their shortcomings are easy to overlook because the strong, well-realised relationships between the leading trio dominate the action.
Dodgy villains aside, The Mask Of Zorro is irresistible fun. It has the free-wheeling spirit of a vintage Errol Flynn flick, and is richly coloured, epic in its scope and awash with historical detail. Like a Golden Age studio swashbuckler, Zorro mixes derring-do, old-fashioned heroics, honour and friendship to impressive effect.
Watch it for the superb, flawlessly choreographed fights (Banderas trying to pinch a steed from an army barracks is particularly inspired). Watch it for the breathtaking stunt sequences (there's a fantastic horse chase that any Western would be proud of). Watch it for the wonderful Catherine Zeta Jones, here in big time-hitting form. And watch it because The Mask Of Zorro is more than just a set of progressively bigger stunts linked by predictable, plot-advancing dialogue. This exciting, intelligent and genuinely amusing adventure feature may be little more than Bond-on-a-horse. But then perhaps that's why it's so enjoyable.
It's Robin Hood meets The Three Musketeers, with all the gravity-defying acrobatics of a Bruce Lee classic. This is the film that Batman always wanted to be. It's simply, undeniably brilliant. You won't see a better movie this Christmas.