Classic author Alexandre Dumas has not fared particularly well as
of late with his myriad film adaptations. 1998 brought the laughable
"The Man in the Iron Mask," and 2001 saw "The Musketeer" blunder onto
movie screens to become one of the biggest misfires of the year. When
compared to these embarrassments that likely have Dumas rolling over
in his grave, "The Count of Monte Cristo" is a notable improvement
but, on its own, is nothing more than forgettable Saturday matinee fare.
As directed by Kevin Reynolds (1995's "Waterworld"), it is clear most
of the time that the man behind the camera knows how to set up a story
and amiably allow it to play out. Where "The Count of Monte Cristo"
runs into trouble, then, is in its often tedious, episodic nature,
and a third act that doesn't know when to quit. A further pitfall
is that this particular story has been adapted over a dozen times
in the past, making the picture an admittedly monotonous and passe experience.
Edmund Dantes (James Caviezel) and Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) are
shipmates in early 19th century France who come upon the island of
Elba, where Napoleon has been exiled, with their fatally wounded captain
in tow. When Napoleon secretly gives Edmund a letter for him to deliver
in Marseilles, he innocently accepts. Returning home, he is promptly
promoted to the position of head captain and rekindles the flame with
longtime love Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). Just as things could not
get any better for Edmund, he is arrested for attempting to deliver
a treasonous letter to Napoleon's secret agents (the particulars of
which he had no idea about) and, worse yet, discovers that it is Fernand who sold him out.
Falsely thought to be executed, Mercedes marries Fernand, instead,
and has a child, oblivious to her new husband's traitor ways. Meanwhile,
Edmund has been taken to the barbarous prison, Chateau d'If, where
he is left to spend the rest of his days. Fate comes to him from below
the ground, literally, when fellow prisoner, the elderly priest Faria
(Richard Harris), mistakenly breaks through into Edmund's cell while
attempting to dig his way off the premises. After being well-educated,
taught the finer points of sword fighting, and clued in to a hidden
treasure capable of transforming him into an extremely wealthy man
from the wise Faria, Edmund prepares his escape from imprisonment
and his ultimate revenge upon those that wronged him.
Having never read Alexandre Dumas' novel of the same name, I cannot
vouch for how faithful "The Count of Monte Cristo" is to the source
material. The finished cinematic product, however, is an adventure-cum-revenge-fantasy
that has a relatively simple premise nevertheless overstuffed to the
point of combustion. The clearly defined three sections of the film
(the setup, the prison, and the revenge plot) may keep one's attention
by themselves but, as a whole, do not gel in any consistent or mellifluous
manner. More importantly, the arduous plight of Edmund Dantes never
grows involving enough for the viewer to care either way about how
his life turns out. For a 133-minute motion picture, such disinterest
is celluloid suicide.
For a swashbuckling period piece, the actors acquit themselves well
enough, but exhibit no positive traits we haven't seen them use to
more successful effect in other movies. James Caviezel (2001's "Angel
Eyes"), as Edmund Dantes, palpably exhibits the wounds of an innocent
man betrayed, while Guy Pearce (1999's "Ravenous") relishes his spitefully
villainous role of Fernand Mondego. As the fought-after Mercedes,
Dagmara Dominczyk (2001's "Rock Star") gives a passionate, accurately
felt performance, all the while trying to fight her lavish corsets for screen time.
Amazingly, these three central characters age 16 years throughout
the course of the story but do not physically appear to have aged
a single day. Making things more ludicrous is that we are supposed
to believe Edmund has changed so much that no one recognizes him when
he returns, even though he looks exactly the same (save for a little more facial hair).
There are just enough sporadic unforeseen plot developments as "The
Count of Monte Cristo" moves along, including the clever way Edmund
escapes from confinement, that it narrowly dodges being a total chore
to sit through. Also cause for at least a modicum of celebration is
director Reynolds' and screenwriter Jay Wolpert's wise decision to
not put a silly martial arts spin on the material (like "The Musketeer"
did). Still, no matter how powerful Dumas' story might have been 50
years ago, it is now unextraordinary, at best. "The Count of Monte
Cristo" is like the amateur entertainer who thinks his material works
when, really, there is nothing remotely special about it.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman