The character of Zorro, as originally conceived, was a sort of Robin Hood of Spanish-ruled California, but this film updates the story to a setting more familiar to American audiences, the Old West. The year is 1850, the date of California's admission to the Union as a free state, something that has caused consternation in the slave states of the South. Zorro is still righting wrongs, fighting injustice and combating those Southern sympathisers who are attempting to sabotage the ballot on the State constitution. Zorro's activities, however, have not impressed his beautiful wife Elena, who thinks that he is neglecting her and their young son Joaquin. Elena divorces Zorro and gets engaged to an old flame, a French Count named Armand, despite the fact that he is an obvious cad. Indeed, Armand is something worse than a cad; he is a member of a ruthless secret society which already controls Europe and is attempting to destroy the United States. Armand is part of a conspiracy to produce nitroglycerine on his California estate and to ship it by train to the Confederate Army in the South who will use it in a surprise attack on Washington.
It is obvious from the above synopsis that this is not the sort of film that places a high premium on historical accuracy. One can amuse oneself while watching it by playing "spot the goof". There was no transcontinental railway joining California to the Eastern states until 1869. Although some in the Southern states were already discussing the possibility of secession in 1850, there was no Confederacy, and no Confederate Army, until 1861. Nitroglycerine did exist in 1850 (it had been discovered in 1846) but it was regarded as too dangerously unstable to be of any military value. We see Abraham Lincoln at the California statehood ceremonies, at a time when he would still have been working as a lawyer in Illinois. (The President at the time was Millard Fillmore). We see a map showing the twentieth-century political boundaries of the American states. The Catholic Church condones divorce and remarriage. The name "Armand" is occasionally pronounced as "Amande" (a feminine name in French). The Spanish word "constitucion" is seen misspelled in the English way as "constitution".
Much of this historical inaccuracy is probably deliberate. Even though none of the three leading actors are actually American, the film's politics are quite defiantly nationalistic; America's westward expansion into previously Mexican territory is presented as part of the march of freedom, and the fight against slavery is brought in as part of this general theme. (President Fillmore does not have the same standing as an icon of freedom as does Lincoln). The main villain is a decadent European aristocrat; ten years ago he would probably have been an Englishman, but the French now seem to have usurped Britain's Least Favoured Nation status in Hollywood. Another recent film, "The Brothers Grimm", also has a French villain; France's stance on the Iraq war may be to blame. The motto of Armand's secret society, "Orbis Unum" or "One World", may be a covert reference to the UN, an organisation which features in many American conspiracy theories. (This is not, incidentally, the first Hollywood film in recent years to project modern America's fears of foreign conspiracies back into the nineteenth century; there was a rather similar plot line in "Wild Wild West").
Despite its questionable politics, there are some enjoyable things about this film. Catherine Zeta Jones, one of the most beautiful actresses working in the cinema at present, has never looked lovelier than she did in the original Zorro film, "The Mask of Zorro", and her beauty has not diminished in the intervening seven years. Antonio Banderas makes a convincingly dashing action hero, ably assisted in his swashbuckling heroics by both Ms Jones herself and Adrian Alonso as Joaquin. This is a family-values thriller; as in "The Mummy Returns" the hero is helped in his struggle by his wife (played in both cases by a beautiful British brunette, Rachel Weisz in the earlier film) and their cheeky but lovable young son. The action sequences are generally well done, and there is an amusingly detestable comic villain in Nick Chinlund's McGivens. Nevertheless, the film often lacks the freshness and vitality of its predecessor. I hope that this sequel will be the last; any attempt at making this into a lengthy series would, I feel, be subject to the law of diminishing returns which normally afflicts such franchises. 6/10