Westerns have been out of fashion for some time now - a generation or two for all intents and purposes. And whenever someone does try to make an "oater" these days, it comes off as strained.

After Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" won the 1992 best picture Oscar, we had a flurry of attempts by major studios to revive the genre - but they were either spoofs ("Lightning Jack," "City Slickers: The Legend of Curly's Gold," "Maverick") or weirdly revisionist ("Tombstone," "Wyatt Earp," "Geronimo: An American Legend," "Wild Bill").And none did well enough at the box office to keep up interest in doing more. ("Maverick" fared best, but the perception was that it was not so much a Western as a Mel Gibson movie.)

These days, Westerns are relegated to the occasional television movie - most often a made-for-cable effort, and usually mediocre at best.

But theatrical Westerns have gone the way of the dodo.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "So what?" But I love Westerns. Some of my favorite movies are Westerns.

In fact, whenever I wander into my friendly neighborhood video store I find myself gravitating toward the Westerns section. And it worries me that many rental stores aren't stocking them like they used to. It means they aren't renting like they used to.

To young people today, "Dusty" isn't just a character name - it's how they think of these pictures.

But I'd rather watch "Rio Bravo" or "The Searchers" or "Ride the High Country" or "Red River" or "High Noon" or "Shane" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" - or the James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaborations ("The Naked Spur," "The Man from Laramie," etc.) - over just about anything on the "Hot New Releases" shelf.

Then I'll watch them again.

And a lot of movie watchers my age or older feel the same way.

Which may explain why I enjoyed "The Mask of Zorro" so much. This is about as close to a Western as we're going to get.

One could argue that "Zorro" is more like another defunct genre - the pirate movie - what with all that swashbuckling. Or that it resembles an Indiana Jones adventure as much as anything else. ("Indiana Jones and the California Raiders," perhaps.)

But the Old California period setting, the horseback chases, the one-on-one showdowns, the hero with his own code of honor (along with a deep-seated desire for revenge against the villain) - all this and more struck me as quite Western-like.

Director Martin Campbell (who also helmed Pierce Brosnan's first James Bond outing, "GoldenEye") has come up with a nice balance of self-aware humor, fast-paced action and heartfelt romance, without feeling the need to slip into R-rated sensibilities. (Perhaps most surprising is that there isn't a single profanity!)

The story, of course, has the legendary Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) passing the baton to a younger man (Antonio Banderas), which requires a period of training and discipline. He is, after all, the "Robin Hood of the West," helping peasants who are repressed by Spanish rule.

Zorro is cloaked in black, wears a mask and is the antithesis of his alter ego, a mild-mannered nobleman (though this film handles that aspect a bit differently than versions past).

Hopkins, Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones are all terrific and their characters are quite well-defined.

And the choreography - whether swords, sabers or whips - is magnificent.

Compare this to something like "Aramageddon," which I found more headache-inducing and chaotic than entertaining . . . well, there is no comparison.

In fact, "Zorro" is far and away superior to all the other comic action pictures in theaters right now - "Lethal Weapon 4," "Small Soldiers," "Six Days Seven Nights . . . they just don't stack up.

We could draw Western parallels to those films as well, but they'd all come off as B-Westerns with A-casts.

So, until Steven Spielberg decides to revive real Westerns - and who else in Hollywood could really make it happen? - "The Mask of Zorro" will have to do.

But in this case, it's not just settling for something less. This is easily the most fun I've had at any movie this summer.

In fact, I think I'll go see it again.

Maybe tonight.