Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater


Hostiles (R)

Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale
January 2018

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Premise:

A soon-to-retire Army captain must deliver his sworn enemy, a murderous Indian chief, back to his tribe.

The Evaluation:

The movie opens with natives ambushing a homestead and killing an entire family, except for the wife/mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who cleverly evades the band of bloodthirsty Apache warriors. While en route to Montana, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) comes upon the Quaid’s charred cabin and offers to escort Rosalie to the nearest fort.  The intrepid sojourners encounter extreme weather, aggressive natives and trigger-happy settlers (but surprisingly, no bears) along the way. All of this is standard fare for a Western film.  Gorgeous southwestern mountain vistas, like the ones seen here (filmed in New Mexico), are also a staple of Western movies.  In short, there really isn’t anything revolutionary about
Hostiles.  However, it’s the efforts of director/writer Scott Cooper and the exceptional performances by Bale, Pike and Wes Studi, as Chief Yellow Hawk, that make this a noteworthy entry into the genre.  The movie is gritty without being graphic; though there’s some violence (scalping), this isn’t Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).  Cooper’s story deftly builds jeopardy as the group endures one threat after the next, culminating with a rather unpleasant confrontation with the greatest hostiles of all…the White Man.  Though the film never plumbs the depths of human emotion like Unforgiven (1992), it effectively shows the plight of those struggling to navigate the savage architecture of the wild frontier. Though not the best Western to have trotted along in recent years (2015’s Bone Tomahawk holds that honor in my estimation), Hostiles is a well written, well acted survival yarn that confronts the ugliness of racism while extolling the virtues of love and courage. In short, Hostiles is a journey well worth taking.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Cooper’s (Black Mass) direction is sure-handed, if not stellar. He makes good use of his locations, but fails to create any splendor or atmosphere with his establishing shots. On the flipside, Cooper evokes tremendous performances from his actors, particularly the stars.

Acting- Bale and Pike are astounding in their roles…there isn’t a single false note between them. Bale beautifully underplays his part and Pike expresses the right emotion at the right time every time. The supporting cast members were chosen with great care and seem as if they drifted right out of the prairie and into the story. Stephen Lang is pitch-perfect as Colonel Biggs. Bill Camp (The Night Of), Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights), Q’orianka Kilcher (Princess Ka’iulani), Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) and Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) all bring their parts to life with startling realness.

Story- Cooper relies too heavily on Western movie tropes while offering very few variations on the theme. I’m also conflicted about the ending, which is gimmicky and played for emotional effect. Does a film this harshly realistic need a happy ending?

Costumes/Make-up- Period appropriate down the line.

Cinematography- An excellent job overall by Masanobu Takayanagi, but the establishing shots of mountain vistas don’t really stand apart from those in any other modern Western.

Music- Max Richter’s score doesn’t draw attention to itself, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- The Western elements (sets, props, etc.) are authentic and finely crafted. The military fort and frontier town are particularly impressive.

Movie Magic- Though an unapologetically bleak tale, Hostiles succeeds at highlighting some of the beauty amid the brutality of the Old West.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

The Dark Tower (PG-13)

Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba
August 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Having read the first book of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novel series in advance of viewing the film of the same name, I’m disappointed in director Nikolaj Arcel’s efforts on several levels. First, only about ten minutes of the movie comes from the first book (primarily the Western scenes). Second, none of the atmosphere (“They could see the smooth, stepped rise of the desert into foothills, the first naked slopes, the bedrock bursting through the skin of the earth in sullen, eroded triumph”), poetry (“Time’s the thief of memory”) or visual vitality (“The guns did their work, stitching the darkness with red-white lances of light that pushed needles of pain into the gunslinger’s eyes”) of King’s book has been translated onto the big screen. Third, in the mold of Percy Jackson & The Olympians (2010) and The 5thWave (2016), The Dark Tower is told through the eyes of a young teenager and has that family-friendly, teen peril vibe to it that belies the book’s somber, sullied soul. Indeed, the book is much more adult (bars, brothels and bullet storms) than the movie and focuses on the exploits of the adults: Roland/the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and Walter/the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). Although the stars are well suited (and enjoyably cast against type) to their roles, they both seem bored with the material. Much like his stiff portrait in Pacific Rim (2013), Elba turns in a one-note performance here. McConaughey, who is supposed to be playing a latter-day grim reaper, is not nearly as menacing as he should be in the role. Case in point: Walter verbally abuses one of his minions for having a rat face. By contrast, Darth Vader would’ve just Force choked the offensive underling and signaled for the body to be dragged off. The best part of the film is Tom Taylor as Jake. Jake, who has visions and powers (chief among them is his skill with a pencil and art pad), is an interesting character that, due to the uninspired writing by Akiva Goldsman, et al., never develops into anything more than Roland’s 2D sidekick. In the end, the film’s commercialized story is its Achilles’ heel, since adherence to the source material would’ve made for a subtly nuanced, psychologically complex pursuit film. The end result here is a glorified teen film that attempts to emulate the visual ingenuity of The Matrix (1999) and Doctor Strange (2016), but ends up resembling (in quality if not movie magic) Tomorrowland (2015). King’s early masterwork deserved a much better cinematic fate.

The Magnificent Seven (PG-13)

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington
September 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Magnificent Seven
“This valley is ours.” For the moment.
It takes a special kind of lowlife to tomahawk a woman.
“They’re better off without you.” Ha!
“Would you like to see another magic trick?”
“Maybe my grandfather killed your grandfather.”
“I believe that bear was wearing people clothes.” LOL
Chisolm eats a deer’s heart. Iron rich breakfast.
“Consider this a recall.” Ha!
“Statistically speaking, they should’ve hit something.”
#ChrisPratt’s comedic timing is impeccable.
The “poking and sticking” scene is hilarious.
“I’ve always been lucky with one-eyed jacks.” Yeah!
#Bogue prays inside the church he burned down. That’s rich. #SinnersPrayer
Final analysis: a decent remake of the 1960 film and its
#Kurosawa antecedent.
3 out 4 stars. Formulaic, but still enjoyable with some great action and non-stop humor.

Based on the 1960 classic Western of the same name—which itself is based on the Japanese film Seven Samurai (1954), directed by Akira Kurosawa—The Magnificent Seven is an adequate remake of the seminal tale of a group of misfits defending a terrorized town from a land-grabbing lowlife and his posse of thugs. Barring a few minor variations, the new Magnificent tracks closely with the storyline from the 60s film and is a crowd-pleasing, yet safe, follow up. In the leading role is Denzel Washington, who plays Chisolm, the counterpart to Yul Brynner’s Chris Adams. Whereas Steve McQueen played the sidekick role with a sense of humor as dry as the original’s dusty desert setting, Chris Pratt’s cardsharp serves as a joke-a-minute funnyman in the new film. Ethan Hawke’s reluctant gunfighter mirrors Robert Vaughn’s shell-shocked sharpshooter, while Byung-hun Lee’s laconic, knife-throwing assassin resembles James Coburn’s similarly drawn character in the vintage version. Similarities between new/old members of the ragtag team diverge at this point with the diversity award going to the new film for including a black, a Mexican and a Comanche (along with an unofficial eighth member in the spirited widow, played by Haley Bennett) in the titular septet. Eli Wallach (in brownface) played the Mexican heavy, Calvera, in the 60s version, but here, Peter Sarsgaard plays the stone-cold Caucasian villain, Bartholomew Bogue. Another story deviation from the 60s movie, which was set mostly in Mexico, is that all of this film’s action takes place north of the border. The movie’s sets, props and costumes are all period appropriate, as would be expected, and the southwestern landscapes (shot in Arizona, Louisiana and New Mexico) are simply gorgeous. My one critique of Antoine Fuqua’s (who previously worked with Washington and Hawke in 2001s Training Day) direction is that he doesn’t give the establishing shots enough time to “breathe” before rushing off to the next bar fight or shootout. Okay, so I lied, I do have another issue with Fuqua’s helming, namely the blurry fight scenes. For his action sequences, Fuqua uses the same handheld camera with rapid-fire edits that you’d see in a blockbuster action film…and the results are nausea inducing. Not only is this brand of action scene anachronistic for the film’s milieu, but it may prove annoying for many non-gamers or anyone over 40. Still, the multi-vantage melees are spirited, fun and don’t overstay their welcome…much like the film itself. Although the movie’s linear, cause and effect narrative is predictable from start to finish; it delivers enough thrills and laughs to keep the audience engaged throughout. Though it fails to live up to its name, the new Magnificent isn’t a bad way to spend 90 minutes. Now it’s time for this review to ride off into the sunset. Happy trails, partner!

The Revenant (R)

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
January 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Revenant
“Keep breathing.” Beats the alternative.
Never seen a river flow through trees like this.
Phantom arrows and friendly fire...they don’t stand a chance.
“Get off the boat.” #Unwise
“I ain’t got no life.” #PeltLife
Two bear cubs. Means momma is nearby. #GetOutOfThere
That #BearAttack is one ferocious sequence.
Leo might be wounded, but at least he has a #BearBlanket.
“Save your boy with a blink.” Intense scene.
Self-cauterizing a neck wound. #Ouch
God is a squirrel. Now I’ve heard it all.
Leo eats that fish #Gollum style.
Glass goes where the buffalo roam and the skies are cloudy all day.
“Your body is rotten.” Thanks for the compliment.
Silly Leo. Horses don’t fly.
Glass does the old #Tauntaun trick with his dead horse. It doesn’t smell good, but it’ll keep him warm.
“I need a horse and a gun.” Yeah! #RunningOnRevenge
Beautiful shot of the #Avalanche.
Final analysis: a cinematic masterpiece with a wholly immersive sense of place.
#AlejandroGInarritu has done for mountain forests what #DavidLean did for deserts in #LawrenceOfArabia.
4 out of 4. A classic tale of revenge with superb acting by #DiCaprio and jaw dropping cinematography.

Ordinarily, a movie with liabilities like a dearth of dialogue, cursory character development and a standard cause-and-effect narrative wouldn’t be considered for Oscar’s top prize.  But The Revenant isn’t an ordinary film.  A good portion of the film’s success derives from its acting, particularly from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, who play diametrically opposed forces in a revenge yarn set during the frontier period.  While Hardy is sufficiently loathsome as the movie’s treacherous antagonist, DiCaprio steals the show with a finely nuanced and physical demanding performance as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper with a half-breed son from his deceased Pawnee wife. Considering the high degree of difficulty inherent in this role and the fact that he’s long overdue for a win (5 previous nods), DiCaprio appears to be a shoo-in to snag the Best Actor Oscar, which would be justly deserved. Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter also turn in noteworthy supporting performances and the grizzly bear, played by Glenn Ennis in a blue suit, gets props (two paws up) for a solid assist. Another key ingredient in the movie’s winning formula is Alejandro G. Inarritu’s peerless direction; the film’s tone and visual style are directly attributable to Inarritu’s exceptional skills as a film craftsman. Inarritu has evoked incredibly visceral performances from his actors and has done so with minimal takes in arduous outdoor conditions. Having already won Best Director and Best Picture last year for Birdman, Inarritu seems poised to carry away another armful of statuettes at this year’s Oscars.  Acting and directing aside, the production element that has elevated this film above the extant exemplars of woodland Westerns is the utterly mesmerizing lensing by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  The movie’s dizzying array of POV shots, long takes and elaborate tracking shots have combined to form a type of visual poetry. The variety, complexity and audacity of these filming techniques, which effectively transport the viewer right into the middle of the action a la a FPS video game, is nearly unrivaled in cinema history (the only films that even come close are Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth trilogies, but those movies employed far more CGI).  Whereas a director envisions a shot and the cinematographer frames it, the locations create the look and mood of a film. As such, the reason this film will go down as a masterwork of visual expression is its locations and the exquisite manner in which they were captured—the avalanche scene, filmed in a real-time one take, is a jaw-dropping achievement. Since the vast majority of this movie was shot on location (almost exclusively in the Canadian Rockies), the exteriors play a crucial role in creating the illusion of reality that moors the viewer to the milieu in palpable ways, wholly immersing them in this savage chapter in American history.  The movie’s location scouts did a phenomenal job of discovering picturesque vantages and pinpointing the perfect setting for each camera setup, so kudos to them for their pioneering (sorry, couldn’t resist) work on this film.  If you can get past its occasional brutal passage, this movie is a singular experience that far transcends the highest aspirations of the quotidian film in its genre.  Which is to say, The Revenant is a cinematic marvel.  Go see it or I’ll sick the bear on you.

The Lone Ranger (PG-13)

Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pasted Graphic 43
Not to be confused with Arm & Hammer.

Kid looses a red balloon. Don’t worry, it’ll end up in France.
With much appreciation to Lamorisse’s masterwork.

Not so still life at the museum. Guess we’ll be seeing Stiller and Wilson in a minute.

A bird in a cage...nice symbolism.
But overdetermined?

Train wreck not nearly as exciting as the one in Super 8 or as realistic as the one in The Fugitive.

Hammer’s hat is as white as the spirit horse. Nice to see that Western tropes are still alive and well.

Nothing like waking up on top of the world. Good thing the LR doesn’t sleepwalk.

Feeding the rabid rabbits...the movie’s first silly scene.
It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie, which works very hard to establish the “reality” of its world.

Spirits for the spirit horse.
We’ve seen this gag in a thousand Westerns and it just never seems to get old.

Do horses really eat scorpions?

Nice montage during the prayer.

Moonlit arrows raining amazing visual.
…but isn’t this something you’d expect to see in a sword and sorcery film and not a Western?

Ah, The William Tell Overture. Just in time for the rousing climax.

Final analysis: far better than I thought it would be, but ran twenty minutes too long.

Gorgeous Western vistas and solid performances all around from the diverse cast.
I don’t know how Verbinski roped Tom Wilkinson into doing this project, but I’m glad for the veteran actor’s presence here.

Probably didn’t score with audiences as well as expected because it was billed as being funnier than it is.
And adding Depp to the cast certainly validated such expectations.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A solid effort, but will the LR ride again in a sequel?

Wow, I thought old Tonto would’ve fainted in the scorching desert by now!

Other than the above observations, it’s hard to say where this Walt Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer production went wrong. Perhaps it was a matter of timing or viewer interest in the subject itself—Westerns haven’t dominated at the box office for quite some time. Hammer doesn’t have the drawing power that Depp does, but Depp’s presence, by itself, should’ve ensured blockbuster status for this film. The movie’s soft-core action scenes and comedy-lite screenplay most likely added to the movie’s malaise and mediocre box office. Either way, Depp probably won’t be applying the face mud again any time soon. And considering what it’s composed of, that might not be such a bad thing.

Cowboys & Aliens (PG-13)

Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Daniel Craig
July 2011

Certainly the most original film of this summer’s panoply of big-budget blockbuster hopefuls, Western/sci-fi mash-up, Cowboys & Aliens, comes like a breath of fresh air amid the stale slate of tentpoles featuring transforming machines, wizards and superheroes. The movie’s holy trinity of director Jon Favreau and megastars Harrison Ford (Han and Indy) and Daniel Craig (Bond), pack this cinematic carbine with tremendous firepower, and boy do they deliver a rip-roaring good time.

As stellar as the two stars are, the supporting cast here is nearly as impressive. Olivia Wilde (TRON: Legacy) plays comely Ella Swenson, the film’s eye candy for teenage boys. Sam Rockwell plays the saloon owner, Keith Carradine is the town sheriff and Clancy Brown is the minister. In a similar role to the one he played in Shanghai Noon (2000), Walton Goggins (Justified) is a high-strung, trigger-happy bandit.

Other than the novelty of aliens in the Old West, there isn’t anything earth-shattering about the story. However, Cowboys & Aliens is a fanciful, farcical romp through familiar territory with a futuristic twist. The movie is a thrill-a-minute entertainment that aims at fun-filled diversion and hits the bull’s-eye.

The movie’s mash-up element might be off-putting to certain attendees—some audience members might find space aliens in their Western to be a little weird, while sci-fi fans will probably be disappointed by the paucity of the extraterrestrial element in the film. In the spirit of fairness (and because we’re in the throes of a global recession) the movie is approximately 80% Western and 20% sci-fi, so plan accordingly.

Based on a 2006 graphic novel of the same name, the movie has plenty of the prototypical conventions found in most Westerns like a solitary, rugged individual (Craig in this instance) descending a lonely hillside into a bullet-riddled town and riding off into the sunset at film’s end. The town ruffian (Paul Dano) gets in trouble with the law, requiring his cattle baron father (Ford) to bail or break him out of jail. An uneasy and unlikely partnership is forged between Craig and Ford when a common enemy threatens the town and their very existence.

But for all of the Western movie conventions utilized in the film, there are a number of unique story elements here as well. For instance, most Westerns are told in a linear fashion.
Cowboys & Aliens, however, employs a series of flashbacks to fill in Craig’s mysterious abduction. The film also turns some Western film tropes on their ear, like who the “us and them” are in the story. The old adage that maintains “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” undergoes an interesting variation in the film where we have cowboys and Indians joining forces against the alien threat. If anything, this scenario certainly breathes new life into a nearly defunct genre.

Further distinguishing
Cowboys & Aliens from traditional Westerns is its postmodern trappings. One of the more exciting scenes in the film is when Craig brings down an alien ship with his alien bracelet—surely a unique tableau in the expansive annals of the Old West. The scene is cathartic on two levels: 1. Good triumphing against evil (a cornerstone of classic Hollywood storytelling, the period when the bulk of Westerns were produced) is always reassuring, and 2. Craig using the alien’s technology against them is an echo of 9-11, but in reverse.

Perhaps the most un-Western element in the movie (other than the presence of aliens, of course) is the Zemeckis-esque flourishes of existentialism. In director Robert Zemeckis’ masterpiece,
Forrest Gump, a languid feather drifts in and out of scenes, adding a unique visual referent as well as a purportedly deeper meaning to the events in the story. In Cowboys & Aliens, the repetitive object (or totem perhaps?) is a hummingbird. It’s not to say that hummingbirds didn’t exist during the Old West period, but they’re not the usual bird you’d associate with a Western—maybe a crow or hawk. Is Favreau tampering with the genre’s well-established iconography? With the presence of aliens in the picture, why not?

So there you have it: cinema’s first high profile Western/sci-fi hybrid with postmodern sensibilities and existential embellishments. While the movie never quite eclipses the lofty expectations placed upon it by the ubiquitous media blitz and fans of either the comic book or the movie’s A-list headliners,
Cowboys & Aliens is still a wildly entertaining adventure, a quality romp that gives “popcorn movie” a good name. If nothing else, it’s just great to see Ford back in the saddle again.

Rating: 3

Rango (PG)

Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
March 2011

With the creative vision of director Gore Verbinski (
The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and the hard-hitting prose of screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator), you’d expect a stylish, edgy and pulse-pounding adventure for Nickelodeon’s new animated foray into the Old West, Rango. As is the case with many movies these days, what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate successfully onscreen. Even though Rango is far from being a bomb it doesn’t exactly hit the target either. It’s diverting without necessarily being inspiring or entertaining.

Everything is going swimmingly for the titular chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp), who’s enjoying some RNR in the back of his owner’s car. As fate would have it, Rango’s glass habitat slips though a car window and he soon finds himself alone and lost in the middle of a desert. As a pampered house pet, Rango must now learn how to survive in the wild with very few life skills to draw upon.

This setup is similar to the opening act of Pixar’s
Cars, when hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) wakes up in the middle of the desert and stumbles into sleepy burg, Radiator Springs. Here, Rango ends up in the Wild West town of Dirt, and it just so happens that the citizens are looking for a new sheriff. Hesitant at first, Rango eventually accedes to the demands of the townsfolk when the chance to be a hero becomes too great an enticement to resist.

Rango is a pastiche of many different films, it has a heavy quotation of Chinatown, which becomes blatantly obvious from the midway point on through to movie’s contrived resolution. At the very least, Logan should’ve selected some other element than water to have a shortage of since H2O was such a central commodity in Roman Polanski’s landmark film. In addition to being a Chinatown retread, the movie also features characters from other movies, like the off kilter cameo of a rugged figure called the Spirit of the West (voiced by Timothy Olyphant), a clear-cut analog of Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” from the Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy. The spirit of Eastwood gives the chameleon hero some words of advice while sweeping the desert floor with a metal detector. It’s a strange flourish that one would expect to see in a movie helmed by Depp’s other director friend, Tim Burton.

Despite it’s best efforts at being topical, by tapping into recession fears,
Rango falls short of being relevant due to the story’s pervasive silliness. Still, there are some mildly amusing scenes and a few creative embellishments, like the rattlesnake with a semi-automatic gun in its tail, that make the movie a worthwhile entertainment. The movie’s underlying message, that anyone can be a hero if they try hard enough, is a bit overdetermined, but is heartwarming just the same. After all, don’t we all secretly wish we could be a hero?

Rating: 2 1/2

The Legend of Zorro (PG)

Directed by: Martin Campbell
Starring: Antonio Banderas
October 2005

“The Legend Continues…But Will the Franchise?”

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Wine improves with age. Seven years is a freakin’ long time to wait for a sequel. Well, maybe that last one isn’t a common expression, but it’s no less true. The Mask of Zorro (1998), a rousing, swashbuckling adventure starring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones, was met with wide acceptance from critics and audiences alike. Now, director Martin Campbell brings us the long-awaited return of the masked vigilante (cape and sombrero, not cape and cowl). However, instead of capitalizing on the success of the first film, Campbell and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have served up a virtual rehash of the original, which suffers from a severe case of sequelitis and has validated another adage: fondness for what’s absent is far better than disappointment over what’s present.

It’s hard to know what direction the sequel should have gone, but this definitely isn’t it. Perhaps the powers that be should have fought harder to get Anthony Hopkins back…his involvement certainly couldn’t have hurt matters any. Or perhaps the Academy Award winning thespian took one look at the script and said, “Pass on the script and pass me the fava beans.”

The Legend of Zorro has a fatal flaw it’s the strained and estranged relationship between Zorro (Banderas) and Elena (Zeta-Jones). The petty jealousy scenes are overly-pedestrian and are simply painful to watch. To make matters worse, the movie has an identity crisis over Zorro and Elena’s marital troubles and the mischievous misadventures of their son, Alejandro (Adrian Alonso). Alejandro’s penchant for getting into trouble provides some comic relief, but the youth’s hijinks fail to play the expected wild card role in the story’s climax. In the end, the boy is a minor character that’s a major nuisance.

One of the sequel’s subplots involves the fight for the future of California, but, if memory serves, the first film dealt with the same issue. Where’s the originality? Midway through the movie, there’s a “plot twist” involving glycerin soap that spectators will see coming from miles away.

Another gimmick that falls flat is the resolution to the protracted lover’s quarrel between Zorro and Elena. When Elena’s true motivations are revealed in the climactic action scene the intended “Ah ha!” moment is actually a groan-inducing non-twist that makes the already emaciated plot pass out from exhaustion under the hot desert sun. Other than a few amusing one-liners and a handful of action scenes (which aren’t nearly as spirited as those in the first film) the rest of the plot is largely forgettable.

I know it’s never wise to count Zorro out, but at this stage the masked vigilante’s screen future is as dubious as this film’s plot. It’s conceivable that, with a better script, Zorro could return for another adventure, just like he did after decades of dormancy with the previous film. With the franchise already in possession of a marketable brand and stellar A-list actors, the continuation and success of the series largely depends upon exciting and original stories. That said, will Zorro ride again or has this pathetic sequel put a nail in the coffin for good? It’d be a shame, and a profound irony, if this film has unintentionally inflicted itself with Zorro’s patented death mark.

Rating: 2

Hidalgo (PG-13)

Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Viggo Mortensen
March 2004

“Intelligent and Inspiring Action Movie”

The trailer for Hidalgo proudly boasted: “The king is back.” The king, of course, refers to Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn from Best Picture winner, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. This assertion is no understatement. Mortensen, a journeyman actor with dozens of supporting roles to his credit, has finally come into his own as a leading man. Besides his striking features—which make most women wilt—Mortensen is adept at playing dramatic, comedic or action sequences, and can transition from one to the next faster than you can say Frodo.

Mortensen’s portrayal of real-life horse racer, Frank T. Hopkins, is a unique blend of Aragorn and Indiana Jones—Hopkins’ adventures along the 3,000 mile “Ocean of Fire” race in the Arabian Desert were equal parts exhausting and inspiring. A special relationship existed between Hidalgo, the painted mustang, and Hopkins, and this rapport serves as the spine of the tale; everything else in the movie is just historical (dubious in some instances) window-dressing. Hidalgo was mixed, as was his master—Hopkins was a half-breed, a Native American whose Caucasian features saved him from the slaughter at Wounded Knee. Enduring great internal and external adversity, these two wounded spirits drew strength from each other, overcame impossible odds and emerged as the victors of the endurance race.

Some silver screen legends appear in the film: Malcolm McDowell’s (A Clockwork Orange) character only appears for a brief instant on the trans-Atlantic cruise ship, but Omar Sharif (Dr. Zhivago) plays a more significant role as the Muslim leader in charge of the race. Director, Joe Johnston (Jumanji, October Sky and Jurassic Park III), was the perfect choice for Hidalgo, a movie with adrenalin-filled action sequences and intimate character vignettes—Johnston excels in both areas.

Hidalgo has a certain charm about it that is akin to the old-style Westerns, where the good guy always prevailed thanks to his own virtue and the loyalty of his steed. It’s this kind of old-fashioned storytelling that is sadly lacking from most Hollywood movies today. Some will find Hidalgo wanting as an action picture because of its attention to character development and plot, but these are the very elements that lift the movie above the morass of shallow, effects-laden films that seem to dominate at the box office. Hidalgo is and intelligent and inspiring adventure movie that’s appropriate for the entire family.

Rating: 3