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Swashes Buckled.

By Coury Turczyn

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Used to be, adventure was a simple thing. Stick a guy on a horse, put him out on the plains, and stuff would happen—enough to keep people entertained, anyway. These days, in order to keep audiences in their seats, you've got to have huge pyrotechnics, mass destruction (of the world, at least), and enough high-priced stars to balance the trade deficit. Or do you?

First, we have Armageddon (PG-13), the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced disaster epic with all the goodies that earned its #1 box office returns: Bruce Willis! A big asteroid! Ben Affleck! New York City in ruins! Ohhhh yes, all this and so much less. Truly, Armageddon will some day be used in film courses as the purest example of its genre—the "$100 Million And We Forgot the Script" movie. Essentially, the plot is: The earth is about to be destroyed by an asteroid, so NASA sends up ace oil rigger/wild cowboy Willis and his ragtag team of drillers to plant a nuke inside it. Fine. Love it. But why not entertain us while unreeling this thing? Why not give us a hero we can root for? How about a thrill or two? Instead, director Michael Bay just gives us a few hyperaccelerated hours of hoary clichés without even the courtesy of freshening up the lines a bit, or even providing side characters that may hold a scintilla of interest. In fact, Armageddon is barely a movie at all—its scenes feel more like animated frames from a comic book...but with less originality.

Then, on the other hand, we also have The Mask of Zorro (PG-13), a simple tale of a guy, a horse, and his fight for justice. And it's a pure delight. Mask of Zorro reminds you of all those little things we once expected of adventure movies: A good story well told, captivating characters, a little romance, a few tears, and some great stunt work. No big digital effects, no cranked-up Aerosmith tunes, no intestines flying through the air. Its sense of genuine fun is nearly a revelation after suffering through years of Schwarzenegger-style shoot-em-ups. Antonio Banderas plays a Mexican outlaw who becomes the protégé of the legendary Zorro (Anthony Hopkins), a 19th century freedom fighter not seen for 20 years. They join forces to defeat a nefarious plot to turn California into the fiefdom of an evil Spanish governor. And that's it—that's as high as the concept goes. But that's all you need when you've got a sharp script and a cast that's clearly enjoying the hell out of their roles. Hopkins finally has somebody fun to play instead of another sexually repressed Victorian Englishman—and it's a pleasure to watch. Banderas, meanwhile, at last fulfills his potential as a magnetic leading man from the old school—in other words, more charm than brawn.

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