Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The spirits are back in a remake of Poltergeist, the 1982 horror classic produced (and some say ghost-directed) by Steven Spielberg. And so we’re recommending some of our favorite “Spielberg imitations,” some involving the blockbuster maestro himself.
Note: This originally ran in 2015.
The Mask Of Zorro (1998)
Many filmmakers have attempted to emulate Steven Spielberg; it’s an occupational hazard of being the most commercially successful movie director of all time. But few of these imitations, even those shepherded by Spielberg himself as an executive producer, have approximated his pop sensibility as surely and satisfyingly as The Mask Of Zorro. Director Martin Campbell, an able journeyman who occasionally resembles a contemporary Michael Curtiz when he connects with the right material, competently mimics Spielberg’s flair for swift, Rube Goldberg-infused stunts that follow a minutely intricate physical chain reaction to an explosive punchline. When Zorro seizes several soldiers’ drawn guns with his whip, for instance, the firearms are diverted so that they point to the opposing side of the screen to inadvertently fire, killing another rampaging bad guy who was fixing to do the hero in from an altogether different vantage point. This tumbling-dominoes approach to set pieces particularly benefits the witty and exciting sword fights, which—like Spielberg’s action films—strike just the right balance between kinetic pathos and slapstick.
Campbell lacks Spielberg’s amazingly fluid ability to fashion images in which the various planes of the screen comment on one another at once. The Mask Of Zorro’s compositions, though beautiful, are simpler, probably partially by design so as to evoke the spirit of the various swashbucklers to which it obviously owes its existence. Campbell pivotally manages, however, to capture the sense of actor camaraderie visible in Spielberg’s early adventure films. Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stuart Wilson, and L.Q. Jones all have phenomenal chemistry, which invests The Mask Of Zorro with a galloping romantic spirit that’s on seriously short supply in big-budget genre films these days.
There’s also the infectious Spielberginess of the film’s plot, which is a mashup of The Count Of Monte Cristo, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. Zorro (Hopkins) is an aging freedom fighter combating Spain in the Mexican War of Independence who’s imprisoned when a dastardly Spanish governor (Wilson) discovers his true identity. Escaping 20 years later, Zorro takes a protégé (Banderas), whom he trains in his makeshift Batcave/Phantom Of The Opera lair, and the two settle their various grudges while thwarting a campaign to steal California from Mexico, which involves a slavery ring resembling the evil temple from the second Jones film. Along the way, Zorro and his friend bicker and forge a poignant father-son bond that will be familiar to fans of the third Jones outing (in fact, Sean Connery was originally in talks to play the role that went to Hopkins). Yet the derivations don’t stick out, because the filmmakers ably hit the chalk marks sketched by their cinematic godfather two decades prior, heeding the most important lesson that Spielberg imparted to the American pop film: Genre tropes are only as powerful as the flair and enthusiasm driving them.
Availability: The Mask Of Zorro is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.