Banderas’ Zorro-in-Training Sweats, Swashes

The Mask of Zorro is an old-fashioned blood-and-sand swashbuckler in the Tyrone Power tradition. This is the one about the masked Robin Hood whose sword and whip have delighted kids in movies, Saturday afternoon serials and television reruns for decades. With the dashing and newly buffed Antonio Banderas behind the black mask once worn by Douglas Fairbanks in 1920 (and Mr. Power in the 1940 remake), the old excitement still packs a punch. Thundering across the screen to rid California of Spanish villains, boldly inscribing jagged Z’s upon all and sundry, Mr. Banderas swashes as well as he swishes.

He’s not alone. In this athletic update on the old romantic thriller, there are two Zorros. The real one–old, imprisoned and caught at last–is Anthony Hopkins. Twenty years have passed since his wife was murdered and beloved baby daughter kidnapped by the evil Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson)–the powerful, ruthless former governor of Alta who has returned with a diabolical scheme to buy the rest of California with stolen gold mined by slave labor. When the aging Zorro escapes from his irons, he needs a younger hero to take his place. This is where Mr. Banderas comes in. There’s only one problem. The new recruit is a thief and renegade outlaw with a price on his own head. It’s up to Mr. Hopkins, looking like the Ghost of Christmas Past, to train this drunken, mangy reprobate in the etiquette of an aristocrat in order to grow from a clown to a servant of the oppressed peons, while falling in love with the old Zorro’s long-lost daughter Elena (played by luscious Catherine Zeta Jones) in the process.

Before old scores are settled and true love conquers, Mr. Banderas must improve his fencing as well as his English. It’s fun watching him do both. Knocking off adversaries with swords, swinging from chandeliers and sailing through the air like one of the Flying Wallendas, the star uses both action muscles and humor, tackling the most preposterous derring-do with skill and a comic timing that is surprising. Posing as a languid popinjay by day and ridding the cactus of tyrants by night, he’s a most delightful sort of Scarlet Pimpernel. Handy with a blade, he can dance a torrid flamenco, too. Scaling walls, he sometimes crash-lands on his rear. Fighting off an entire regiment of soldiers with a sword in each hand, his arrogance borders on parody. In one jim-dandy duel after another, he exudes just the right spirit of romantic make-believe the director, Martin Campbell, intended.

Everything has the proper look of a spectacular gasconade, and the most spectacular ingredient of all is newcomer Catherine Zeta Jones, a Steven Spielberg discovery whose dark eyes, porcelain skin and meltingly radiant yet mischievous smile reminded me of the late, great Natalie Wood. Bounding along at a lively, exhilarating clip, the way all extravagant costume fictions should, The Mask of Zorro is irresistible fun.

Claire Danes Has One in the Oven

In an armpit comedy called Polish Wedding , Ireland’s Gabriel Byrne, Sweden’s Lena Olin, Australia’s Daniel Lapaine and the very all-American Claire Danes all find themselves playing members of a lusty, hardscrabble family of blue-collar Polish workers in Detroit. It’s a dismally colossal misfire all around.

The boring, sour-faced Mr. Byrne, who is turning up in every movie this year that doesn’t have a role for Ben Stiller or Eric Stoltz, plays Bolek Pzoniak, a surly baker who heads a clan of scratching, belching Cro-Magnons who can obviously trace their roots all the way back to the peasants who killed Frankenstein. Ms. Olin plays the long-suffering matriarch, Jadzia, who cleans toilets to keep the family in kielbasa. We are asked to believe, among other ludicrous contrivances, that Bolek has lost all interest in Jadzia because after giving birth to four sons and a daughter she has lost her sex appeal. Hello? Ms. Olin has a waistline the size of a teenager’s diaphragm and a bustline that would make Sophia Loren blush. She is too beautiful and sexy to play a snoring, child-bearing mound of fertility her husband won’t even look at sideways. Sometimes she skewers him in his sleep with her unclipped toenails, and there’s that guy she services on the floor of an office building urinal, but still.

The only hope for the Pzoniaks is their daughter Hala (Ms. Danes), who looks like such an angel that the local priest selects her to play the Virgin Mary in the annual church festival. It’s an honor that forces the whole family to interrupt their bickering long enough to smile. It’s also a job requiring chastity, innocence and virtue. Unfortunately, Hala is pregnant. Powerless to resist the call of passion, she’s been sneaking out of the window at night to play Polish patty-cake with the neighborhood cop. Now the whole Pzoniak clan faces eternal damnation, not to mention Detroit ridicule. Will Bolek and Jadzia reconcile and hit the mattress humming? Will the cop make an honest woman of Hala after her family threatens his privates with their garden tools? The answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind.

With accordions playing and peasants dancing in vacant lots, Polish Wedding paints an odd landscape so foreign to Michigan it might as well be one of those postwar Italian neorealisms by Roberto Rossellini, but where is Anna Magnani now that we need her? Writer-director Theresa Connelly encourages a randy cast to smoke furiously, make rude noises from both ends, and display a voracious appetite for sex and food. Alas, the result is more bleak than amusing. In a world of pirogis, sausages, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, crying babies and no end to procreation and prayer, it’s difficult to swallow the comic premise that there is no problem in life so serious it can’t be solved by a belt on the jaw and another jar of pickles. Watching the Pzoniaks live by their guts and their groins not only makes you understand and appreciate Polish jokes better, but inspires you to think up a few new ones of your own.

There’s Nothing Funny About Mary

I thought Armageddon was the worst film of the summer. I was wrong. I have now survived a load of sewage called There’s Something About Mary . There sure is, and I’m not certain it’s legal. Peter and Bobby Farrelly, two morons who polluted the ozone with Dumb and Dumber , specialize in silliness and vulgarity and in the rock-bottom mentality that permeates contemporary society, they have even, I’m told, found an audience of asinine fans. Their style is sophomoric frat-house sick jokes aimed at junior-high I.Q.’s. (Sometimes this includes critics.)

This time, their subject is a creepy 16-year-old Rhode Island dork (played by the peripatetic Ben Stiller with braces, one of Sid Caesar’s old fright wigs and a rubbery, lovesick grin that makes Red Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper look like a nuclear physicist) who spends his prom night (and one interminably long, loud, painfully unfunny scene) with his genitals stuck in his pants zipper for the girl of his dreams (and the audience) to see. The girl is Mary (Cameron Diaz), who haunts him forever. Thirteen years later, looking more like the real Ben Stiller but still a geek, he tracks her down to Miami, only to find he’s got at least three other rivals, all totally insane.

Designed to scuttle political correctness and offend everyone old enough to vote, the movie has no further plot. It just meanders scene by scene, from one nauseating sight gag to the next. Ms. Diaz, a perky actress who is candy for the eye, is the only moderately tolerable thing in this dud, but even she is working without a pilot light. She has a big fat mentally impaired brother and a black stepfather. While Matt Dillon, desperate to stretch, gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dog, a cretinous sunburned vision of horror named Lin Shaye, who looks like a female impersonator, sinks even deeper into John Waters raunch. She actually French-kisses the same dog, then sucks its tongue. Divine did even more obscene things on the screen, but why would a real woman want to compete with Divine? Wrapping up this agony, I thought I’d seen everything, but I have never seen anything like the scene where Mr. Stiller masturbates to Bizet’s Carmen , then rushes to open the door with a big glob of semen hanging from his ear, and Ms. Diaz rubs it through her locks, mistaking it for hair gel.

I don’t object to a bit of childish cinematic anarchy now and then, but this bit, with all the shock value of a poached egg with a dead rat on top, is the best reason I can think of for members of the Screen Actors Guild to finally Just Say No.