‘Legend Of Zorro’ Follows Antonio Banderas’ Kid-Friendly Lead

New installment a kinder, gentler sequel to swashbuckling 1998 hit.

The mask looks familiar. So does the charismatic leading man, the beautiful damsel opposite him, and the trademark Z being swish!-swish!-swished! into the bad guy’s posterior. To make “The Legend of Zorro,” however, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones had to do much more than simply sharpen their swords.

“A lot has happened, both personally and professionally,” Zeta-Jones acknowledged, referring to her Academy Award, marriage to Michael Douglas, A-list industry status and everything else that has made her a very different woman from the virtual unknown cast as eye candy in “The Mask of Zorro,” one of 1998′s highest-grossing successes. “Obviously, as we grow and the years go by and we get more life experience, you hope you would be able to put those experiences and emotions into your work. So I hope I have grown as an actress. And I feel by doing movies like ‘Traffic,’ ‘Chicago’ and the other movies I’ve done, that I have.”

Banderas, meanwhile, has gone from smoldering leading man to “kid-friendly guy,” starring in the “Spy Kids” trilogy and stealing “Shrek 2″ as the voice of the Zorro-like Puss in Boots. “They don’t have anything to do with each other, except that they carry a cape,” Banderas laughed. “There was a certain mockery in Puss in Boots, but Puss in Boots is a totally different type of person. He’s more dangerous than Zorro,” he added with a disarming grin.

Banderas’ new cred with the SpongeBob set suggests why “Legend” is considerably more kid-friendly than “The Mask of Zorro.” Set several years after the previous adventure, the movie opens with Alejandro (Banderas) and Elena (Zeta-Jones) now married and enjoying life with their 10-year-old son, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). Putting the “fun” in dysfunctional, Dad runs off into the night to fight bad guys, Mom puts pressure on her husband to hang up the cape and Junior reflects his lineage by engaging his teacher in swashbuckling schoolroom ruler battles.

“There’s just as much fighting,” Rufus Sewell, who plays evil French aristocrat Armand in the film, assured fans. The difference, he explained, lies in “whether you’re going to dispatch someone by cutting their throat or by bonking them on the head. There might be a little bit more head-bonking now.”

For Banderas, the chance to bring Zorro to a younger audience was reason enough to return for the sequel. The first masked hero in modern American fiction, Zorro inspired the young Banderas, too. “I was a kid like many thousands — millions — of kids in the world who saw the [1950s] TV series starring Guy Williams. I used to sword-fight with my little brother on the terrace of our house in Malaga, with plastic swords.”

Introduced in a 1919 novel, Zorro has long inspired those who hope to grow up to be similar suave defenders of the common man. Banderas insisted the character is like James Bond or Superman, only more realistic. “He’s more human than those guys,” he reasoned. “[Zorro] doesn’t have supernatural powers, though he is very flamboyant in his performances, especially when he’s providing justice to people, just jumping around like a Cirque du Soleil act.

“But at the same time he’s more elegant,” Banderas continued. “You’ve got a sly thing going with him that I like. He’s imperfect, a little bit clumsy, and jealous and drunk. All of that humanizes the character and makes him very approachable. Everybody in the audience can recognize a little bit of themselves in him; and then everybody roots for you to be the guy he’s supposed to be. That’s the part of the movie I enjoy the most, all the comedy.”

With the family element, Banderas’ Zorro becomes more of a Mr. Incredible-type character trying to live up to his legend without ignoring his parental duties. And instead of simply running around in busty period costumes, Zeta-Jones was written as an Elastigirl-like wife. She may not always be happy with her husband, but she can help him throw down whenever necessary.

“I was happy I wasn’t left on the balcony waiting for Zorro to come home,” Zeta-Jones grinned. “I was inspired by the fact that I wasn’t standing behind Zorro but rather standing right next to him.”

And just in case Sewell really does turn out to be the leader of a super-secret organization with plans for world domination, like his character in the movie, the stars report that, after two Zorro adventures, their real-life action-hero skills are almost equal to those onscreen.

“I can do the horse and the sword, it’s all me in the movie,” Banderas said proudly. “I feel very comfortable with horses. The sword thing is tough because you have to train a lot. It’s just repetition after repetition after repetition.”

“I’m pretty good as long as my sword was handy,” Zeta-Jones laughed. “The punching was hard for me because I punch like a girl. I had to learn to look as if I’m physically really whacking the stunt man. But if a scrap broke out, I think you’d be pretty impressed by my skills.”

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