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Pyrotechnics can't mask inane Zorro storyline

There is one single phrase that can sum up Hollywood's attitude about sequels: Strike while the iron is hot. Don't let the public grow complacent or forget how great the first installment was. You don't wait seven years to release a sequel that could have easily been the second of at least four follow-ups. If you do wait, you don't produce something that is so far removed in style and tone from the first that it is unrecognizable.

The absolute best thing that can be said about "The Legend of Zorro" is that its two leads have aged well. As the title character, Antonio Banderas still oozes his patented Latin charm, and the molten-hot Catherine Zeta-Jones as his wife, Elena, has actually grown more beautiful with time. Both are framed throughout the film to make the most of their surface beauty, but that isn't nearly enough to make up for one of the most inane and insipid screenplays of the century.

Instead of the folksy Western approach of the first, director Martin Campbell adds to the vacuous script by turning it into an overblown, overlong action-adventure train wreck. He punctuates the feel by actually tacking on an impossibly violent train-wreck at the end. When not bombarding us with CGI-heavy effects and explosions, Campbell gives us a third-rate Telemundo soap opera rife with over-exaggerated stock villains, all accompanied with a cheesy mariachi backing score.

This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone, considering Campbell's resume. He's the man behind two James Bond movies as well as "Vertical Limit" and the atrocious "Beyond Borders." But he also made "The Mask of Zorro," and had he shown the same level of restraint he'd exhibited there (and was handed a totally different script), it might have worked out better. Maybe.

In short, the plot involves the possible rigging of the election that eventually brought California into the Union. Zorro decides to come out of retirement to snare the perpetrators, much to the chagrin of Elena, who wishes he'd just become a land baron. The couple separates, and while Zorro stays busy with sword fights and protecting his identity, Elena starts dating a slimy tycoon (Rufus Sewell). All is not how it appears, but by the time all the "secrets" are revealed, we're too overcome from the pyrotechnic overload to even care.

Noticeably absent in all this is Anthony Hopkins, who played Zorro's predecessor and mentor in the original and wisely demurred. Hopkins picks his material well and could probably sense danger - and smell the stench from a mile away.

Unless Banderas or Zeta-Jones completely rock your world, you should avoid this movie at all costs. (Columbia)