Swashbuckling and Swordplay

by Ed Symkus

Movie adaptations of the Alexandre Dumas novel have been made so many times -- one popular Internet search engine lists 18 of them among feature films, TV movies and TV series -- you have to wonder why some studio honcho over at Disney gave the green light to yet another. But after seeing this one -- a handsome, thrilling production with plenty of action, some fascinating characters, and a hearty dollop of humor -- the answer is clear: Director Kevin Reynolds and screenwriter Jay Wolpert offered up some fresh insights to an already ripping story and were able to deliver on what they said they could do.

So here it is once again -- the tale of an innocent man wronged by some nasty people, as well as by someone he called a friend. His promising life is torn from him, he's unceremoniously tossed into solitary confinement, and then, upon daring escape, he vows revenge, then pursues it.

Jim Caviezel, an actor whose talent has been shining through in recent years in films as widely diverse as The Thin Red Line, the little-seen Frequency and the woeful (except for his performance) Pay It Forward, here finds a role that should push him over the top. As the unlucky hero, Edmund Dantes, Caviezel tears through a variety of emotions, from utter joy to despairing self-pity to wild-eyed triumph and never misses a note. He makes a dashing lover, a pitiful prisoner and an exciting (but faux) member of the privileged class, and is believable from frame one on.

As his one-time friend and now foe, Fernand Mondego, Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Memento) is suave and sophisticated -- and quite good behind a sword -- at the film's start, but he turns progressively more gaunt and desperate as it goes on. His part is smaller, but he's just as good, making viewers wish he had more screen time.

The plot is one of political treachery, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having to pay the price. At the beginning, the two men make it to the shore of an island, looking for medical help when the captain of their ship is ailing. Unfortunately for them, the island is Elba in the year 1814, and Napoleon Bonaparte is a sort of free captive there. A meeting between the deposed general and Dantes results in what appears to be the innocent passing of papers from one to the other, an act that will have dire consequences for the naive Dantes.

Cut to the horrid prison, overseen by the sadistic, deep-voiced Michael Wincott (Strange Days, Alien: Resurrection), where Dantes will be either ignored or whipped for many years. Oddly enough, this is where the film gets its first trace of humor, courtesy of hairy Richard Harris as a fellow prisoner who has been there even longer and has a working plan for an escape. His part is even smaller than Pearce's, but the mark he leaves -- of ragged grace, twinkling eyes, and a wise, generous mind -- is an indelible one.

Circumstances lead to freedom for Dantes, as well as a plan to secure a treasure -- if he can find it -- and the meeting up with a crew of pirates. One of those pirates (Luis Guzman from Traffic and Boogie Nights) becomes a comrade and an integral part of his plan to go beyond getting even with those who came so close to ruining him.

These latter parts of the film turn into a minor spectacle. Dantes, with complex machinations of retribution spinning all around him, reinvents himself as the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo (named after an island that he develops a fondness for) and reintroduces himself into what becomes an adoring public. Adoring, that is, until a certain few members start heading toward some tough times, courtesy of the Count.

Kevin Reynolds, who has had some tough times himself in getting his directing career going (187 was ignored, Waterworld was taken away from him by Kevin Costner, Rapa Nui wasn't even released) shows a great flair this time for getting a story told and establishing characters. And with cinematography by Andrew Dunn, who also just did the elegant Gosford Park, the film is as spectacular on a visual level as it is in getting viewers caught up in the story.

If fault is to be found, it's only in a small area of pacing. The simple story gets overly complex, with tendrils sprouting from the center. It's fine that it zips along, but it goes perhaps a bit too fast right near the end when a certain sword fight that's been hinted at since the early stages needs expanding. Yet when just about every other film out there these days could use some heavy trimming, this is almost a welcome complaint.

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