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A big surprise! `Zorro’ isn’t really that bad!

SHARE A big surprise! `Zorro’ isn’t really that bad!

The pieces were in place for "The Mask of Zorro" to be a real stinker. For one thing, the original director ("Desperado's" Robert Rodriguez) was replaced because of budgetary squabbles, which led to some unhappy cast members and numerous production delays.

So when the finished product is a mildly entertaining, if unspectacular and uneven, action film, it comes as a welcome surprise.Of course, even that wouldn't have been possible if not for three very charismatic leads, Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta Jones, whose performances transcend some pretty thin material and some pretty annoying technical glitches.

Another thing the movie has in its favor is that it follows some awful Zorro television movies and series, as well as the horrible 1981 George Hamilton comedy "Zorro, the Gay Blade."

The film is a loose remake of both the 1920 and 1940 versions of "The Mark of Zorro," which were in turn loose retellings of Johnston McCulley's 1919 story "The Curse of Capistrano."

In "The Mark of Zorro," longtime freedom fighter Don Diego de la Vega (Hopkins) passes the mantle of Zorro on to a much younger man, Alejandro Murrieta (Banderas). But the former thief is more bent on seeking vengeance for the death of his brother than on fighting against injustice.

Don Diego, who recently escaped from prison after 20 years, also has revenge on his mind, namely avenging the death of his wife and reclaiming his daughter, Elena (Jones), who has been raised in his absence by his mortal enemy, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson, from BBC-TV's "Prime Suspect" series).

And conveniently, both men get their chance when Montero unveils his scheme to buy the California Territory from Mexican revolutionary Santa Ana, leading to fateful sword duels for the swash-bucklers against the Spanish despot and his right-hand man (Matthew Letscher).

Throughout most of the picture, director Martin Campbell ("Gold-enEye") keeps the action moving briskly, with enough thrilling swordfighting sequences for both this movie and the lethargic remake of "The Man in the Iron Mask."

However, the movie is at least 20 minutes too long and closes with a flurry of explosions that seems to indicate that the filmmakers didn't think their project was exciting enough.

"The Mask of Zorro" is rated PG-13 for violent swordfighting, fistfighting and gunplay, gore, brief male nudity and use of some vulgar slang.