A mainstream popcorn thriller without a dash of wit isn't much fun; a thriller that winks at you incessantly isn't much of a thrill. The challenge for studio directors and screenwriters working in the ubiquitous action-comedy genre is to find the right balance between tension and release. Two that teeter deftly on that high wire are The Legend of Zorro (Columbia) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Warner Bros.).
Zorro is misnamed, since it's less about the "legend" than what happens when the legend goes home and gets yelled at by his wife. (The Incredibles is probably going to end up as the new template for superhero movies.) It seems that Don Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Banderas) has been spending way too much time crossing swords (and leaping, and pirouetting, and somersaulting) on behalf of U.S. statehood for California, and not enough time with his wife, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and son (Adrian Alonso).
This is a slap to both Zorro and the audience, since Elena was the niece of the last guy (Anthony Hopkins) to carve Z's in peoples' foreheads and ought to know the drill. (Was she his niece? Maybe she was his stepdaughter. I can't remember much about the 1998 The Mask of Zorro apart from the moment when the unknown Zeta-Jones came onscreen and I blacked out.) Anyway, the pair's estrangement is basically a way to kick-start the plot and, later, goose it along with some good nasty banter. There's even a Noel-Cowardesque bit in which the exes back into each other on a balcony and let out twin cries of horror.
The plot revolves around California statehood and the murderous opposition of an unholy cabal of white supremacists, Confederates, and French diabolists with the 1850 equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. That would be quite enough for one thriller, but there's also the matter of Elena, who seems to have fallen for a French count (Rufus Sewell, not stretching himself) with a grand chateau and a spooky Mrs. Danvers housekeeper. The script (credited to Johnston McCully, Alex Kurtzman, and Robert Orci) is so busy and well orchestrated—there's even a dollop of Notorious—that you probably won't even ask why the bad guys need the deed to the ranch of a nice Mexican peasant family. No Western bad guys can ever pass a peasant family's ranch without coveting it, comprende?
The director, Martin Campbell, veers too far in the direction of camp in the picture's first big action sequence, putting Zorro's gleeful acrobatics on a Gene Kelly-like pedestal. But in the rest of the battles/chases he gets the mixture just right. Doubtless taking his cues from executive producer Steven Spielberg, Campbell keeps you one step in back of the action: close enough to register the props ("Hmmm, there's a rope… there's a plank… there's a scaffold…") but far enough behind to be surprised by the order (and the rate) in which they come into play. He's aided by Cecilia Montiel's sets, a riot of ropes and planks and scaffolds—and pulleys, and swinging buckets, and makeshift wooden bridges. You get all that, plus burning barns and runaway trains—yet this isn't the profligate, computer-generated hash-action of Steven Sommers (of The Mummy and Van Helsing). The staging and editing (by Stuart Baird) would make the Ringling brothers whoop in admiration. And this is one of the rare action films in which the top bad guy, the runner-up bad guy, and the bad guy you hate for no other reason than that he's bald and mute and has a mean-looking cleaver up his sleeve get comeuppances that are worthy of them.
Good as it is, The Legend of Zorro would be a hollow feat without leads who are drop-dead-gorgeous movie stars and spectacular clowns. Watch the way Banderas uses his body (and hair) in his drunk scene: He's still an acrobat, but with his heart splintered and circuits misfiring. (His huge, smoldering horse snorts in disgust at Zorro's' buckled frame.) Watch how Zeta-Jones sways airily, innocently above that magnificent bosom before those almond eyes flash and she delivers a haymaker to the jaw of some upstart. A friend recently said she wanted to cry when she showed her kids The Princess Bride, because the princess stood by and watched while the hero got bashed around. Seeing The Legend of Zorro, it hit me that Zeta-Jones has now raised the bar impossibly high for damsels in semi-distress. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lynndie England: You've come a long way, baby.
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout) has come a long way, too. Fifteen years ago, his name was regularly invoked as proof of the lamentable state of screenwriting—and the big bucks that came in its wake. At a party I once breezily dismissed his work in front of an executive who (I didn't know) had dated him. The surprise was that she didn't deliver a Zeta-Jones-like haymaker to my jaw. She said, thoughtfully, "Shane is angry, and he understands how to make audiences angry, too." She was dead-on. Lethal Weapon works because, almost from the first scene, we share Mel Gibson's rage at the victimization of a young woman, and much of the suspense comes from waiting for his overcautious partner to share it, too—and consent to wanton violence. Black's big payday—The Last Boy Scout—operated on many of the same principles and might have worked even better than Lethal Weapon with a director less fancy (and inept) than Tony Scott.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang suggests that Black hasn't purged that anger—only that he now has some perspective and knows how to control it. For all the (accurate) descriptions of the film as a postmodern parodic pastiche of L.A. noir (which was, in itself, extremely self-conscious), it's also something more serious: the story of a man (Robert Downey Jr.) called upon to avenge the casual and often murderous exploitation of young women. The jokey narration ("My name is Harry Lockhart and I'll be your narrator") leavens the grim narrative at the movie's heart, but it's that dose of righteous fury that gives it a pulse.
The comic surface of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is all polished brilliance, with surprisingly few dull patches. It's hard to imagine a more ingenious back story: A thief on the run from the cops (who killed his partner), Harry blunders into a film audition and, after he brings a Methody realism to the grieving character's lines, is shipped off to Hollywood. And there's the movie: thrills, farce, and genuine emotion appropriated by Hollywood in all its frenetic superficiality. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang deconstructs itself as it goes along, with the narrator making fun of the conventions of the genre and the Robert McKee-ruled business of screenwriting—all while stopping well short of a Charlie Kaufman implosion. No, Harry and the private eye he hooks up with, Perry (Val Kilmer, mining amusing new veins of weirdness), find themselves embroiled in a real mystery, with real danger and a good bang-bang climactic shootout.
The movie doesn't deliver in the kiss-kiss department, though. Black writes sharp lines for the unpredictable Dark Girl (vividly played by Michelle Monaghan), but he doesn't get very deep inside her head. He has a strange (but probably typical, in Hollywood) way of objectifying women at the same time he's burning with outrage at their maltreatment. Something vaguely similar happens with gays, too. Much is made of Perry's homosexuality and how it leads his macho-thug opponents to underestimate him. Five jokes on the subject would have made the point. Twenty suggests that someone has a lot of unexamined heterosexual anxiety.