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There have been myriad films made from Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 swashbuckler “The Three Muskeeters,” most recently the 1993 version with Charlie Sheen, Chris O’Donnell, Kiefer Sutherland and Oliver Platt which, because of its Brat Packish sensibility, was often referred to as “Young Swords.” (Curiously enough, it was directed by Stephen Herek, whose “Rock Star” opens this week against this new take on the story.) Probably the best of the lot was Richard Lester’s 1974 effort, which adopted a flip attitude characteristic of its time, but the old 1921 Douglas Fairbanks version is still exhilarating, and the more obviously tongue-in-cheek treatments featuring Don Ameche (1939) and Gene Kelly (1948) are moderately engaging. Heretofore the worst version was probably a sluggish 1935 picture with Walter Abel, but it is now easily surpassed by Peter Hyams’ botched attempt to refashion the piece in a jokey modern idiom, choreographing the action sequences in Hong Kong style–the stunt coordinator was Xin-Xin Xiong, famous among aficionados for his work on such genre classics as “Once Upon a Time in China.” (A reader who uses the moniker KC Woman in fact, asks that I point out that the climatic ladder battle between D’Artegnan and Febre is an obvious swipe from that movie. I’m glad to comply. And to suggest that a video viewing of “China” will give you a great deal more pleasure than the new release.)

Whatever your view of the earlier adaptations, or your reaction to the decision to model the swordfights on Oriental models, you certainly won’t be much impressed or entertained by “The Musketeer.” Narratively it’s completed muddled, the clash of accents in the cast just worsening the effect of a script that fails to clarify who’s who and what the motivations of the various characters are. (D’Artagnan’s grizzled guardian Planchet, for example, is played by a hulking French actor named Jean-Pierre Castaldi, whose marble-mouthed butchery of English makes Andre the Giant’s grunts in “The Princess Bride” seem, in retrospect, a model of clarity.) But the damage is perversely beneficial, because overall the dialogue is so replete with cliches and lame, contemporary-sounding one-liners that it might have been penned by a roomful of drugged monkeys. (Actually, Gene Quintano–known for such gems as “Operation Dumbo Drop,” “Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold” and two “Police Academy” movies–is the culprit.) But Hyams doesn’t help matters by staging everything in so slapdash a fashion, and photographing it all in such murky tones and washed-out colors, that it’s often difficult just to tell what in heavens is going on. (Hyams shoulders primary responsibility because he serves as his own cinematographer, and Terry Rawlings can bear only part of the blame for the ragged cutting.) The effect is especially damaging to the numerous action set-pieces: Xiong’s choreography might be very impressive, but any impact it might have had is vitiated by poor camera placement, unfocused lensing, dim lighting and sloppy editing: the final assault on the fortress of Duchamps is so badly staged and arranged that it’s a complete mess. Even the music score–thoroughly anonymous brassy stuff by David Arnold, poorly played and recorded to boot–is third-rate.

The acting is awful, too. This is surprising, given the fact that veterans like Catherine Deneuve, Stephen Rea and Tim Roth play prominent roles. But they’re hardly at their best, or even their mediocre. Deneuve looks embarrassed as Louis XIII’s queen, and Rea is simply dull as the malevolent Cardinal Richelieu. (Compare the wonderful extravagance Tim Curry brought to the role in the O’Donnell version.) As for Roth, his snooty villainy is so commonplace that he almost fades into the background; by the close of shooting he must have been wishing for his face to be encased in the makeup that concealed him in “Planet of the Apes,” but he has to make do with a black eyepatch that still permits him to be recognized. The young leads are even worse. As D’Artagnan, Justin Chambers acts like a model; he resembles a Johnny Depp without the talent, providing an endless stream of hilariously flat line readings and stiff posturing. (He gets a huge, if unintended, laugh when he blandly says to his loyal horse, which has just collapsed in a heap during a nightlong ride, “You rest here.” And one must make special note of the enormous, unflattering hat he’s made to wear continuously, clearly a failed attempt to conceal the fact that he’s replaced by a stunt man in the scenes of derring-do.) Mena Suvari is lovely but vacuous as Francesca, the maid with whom he falls in love at first sight (in an insufferably “cute” sequence straight out of the worst of today’s romantic comedies). As for the three musketeers themselves, it’s hard to believe that anybody will remember the names of Nick Moran, Steve Spiers or Jan Gregor Kremp after the lights come up.

Perhaps the sequence that best represents the shabbiness of “The Musketeer” is one in which the title character leads a still-radiant Deneuve into the sewers of Paris: the picture trashes the lovely star and Dumas’ original as surely as the queen is being humiliated by the turn of plot. But at least Catherine should know she’s not alone; Hyams’ movie is so bad that it figuratively dumps the audience into a cinematic cesspool as well. Though it strives clumsily to be fun, it’s a lazy, dispiriting effort that reminds one of one of those bloated old “international epics” that proliferated in the seventies and eighties, looking like they’d been shot in random European locales at widely separated times and sloppily assembled from miles of uncoordinated footage–only to be badly overdubbed from beginning to end in a vain effort to conceal the fact that most in the foreign-tongued cast were speaking their lines phonetically. In that respect rather than the pleasurable one it’s aiming for, the picture is a throwback; but, given its miserable quality, it would be more accurate to call it a throwaway.


Just when you thought that the summer of 2001 couldn’t possibly inflict upon us a comedy worse than “Rat Race” (“Freddy Got Fingered,” of course, having appeared in the spring and being in an entirely more loathsome category), along comes “Bubble Boy,” an empty-headed, chaotic, utterly tasteless atrocity of such staggering proportions that it may even make you more tolerant of Jerry Zucker’s miserable movie.

The script is about Jimmy Livingston (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man with severe combined immunodeficiency disease (SCID), whose body’s inability to fight even the commonest infections forces him to live inside an elaborate system of germ-free “bubbles” constructed by his all-controlling mother (Swoosie Kurtz) in their suburban California house. As a teen, however, he falls head over heels for his beautiful next-door neighbor (Marley Shelton); and when she goes off to Niagara Falls to marry her scumbag of a boyfriend (Dave Sheridan), he slaps together a portable bubble in which he can take off on a cross-country rush to get to the church in time to proclaim his love and halt the wedding. (The premise itself is extraordinarily dumb, of course– nobody goes to Niagara Falls to get married, they’re married at home and then sometimes go there to honeymoon–but the lazy scriptwriters obviously needed some device, however idiotic, to turn their tale into a road movie.) Along the way, he meets up with group after group of colorful eccentrics–a nearly-comatose ticket-seller at an isolated bus depot, a bunch of bus-traveling cultists (who come to consider him their messiah), a rough-and-tumble motocyclist, a midget circus-act manager and his collection of sideshow freaks (Tod Browning must be writhing in his grave), an Indian who drives an “Ice cream and curry” truck, the Chinese proprietor of a bar sponsoring mud-wrestling contests, and a wizened geezer of a truck-driver. It would be impossible to disentangle how all these figures interact as they variously help and pursue Jimmy during his journey (his mom and dad are hot on his trail too, of course), because writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and director Blair Hayes have gone about constructing the picture by tossing all the elements mentioned above–along with numerous others–into a kind of cinematic blender, mashing everything together in what was apparently an effort to come up with a wildly anarchic, almost surrealistic funfest. What emerges instead is a sad, soggy mess, a random collection of crude, stupid sketches made all the more unpalatable by the fact that it wants to be stickily sweet, too. “Bubble Boy” is structured like a bad dream, and has about the same effect of both disturbing and exhausting you.

All this would be bad enough if the movie were just mindlessly dumb, but it’s actually offensive as well. Despite disclaimers, the dreadful script was obviously inspired by the case of David Vetter, a youngster who died in 1984 after living for twelve years in a protective bubble. (Another source was clearly the 1976 telefilm “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” a fictional piece in which John Travolta played a young man living in a similar environment, who–shock of shocks!–falls for the girl next door. As far as disease-of-the-week movies from that time went, it wasn’t a bad picture.) In the present version, however, Jimmy is made to appear mentally retarded as well as physically ill–he’s a goofy dullard with spiked hair and a squeaky, Jerry Lewis voice)–and he spends most of his time falling down, crashing into things and being run over. The fact that Gyllenhaal, a decent actor (he was quite effective in “October Sky’) has to go through this miserable slapstick for nearly an hour an a half is intolerable enough, but one can only imagine how people acquainted with somebody actually suffering from the malady Jimmy’s supposed to have might react to watching it. But “Bubble Bob” is offensive in a second sense, too: it’s an unending, indiscriminate rant against the very notion of religious belief. Not only is Jimmy’s mother portrayed as a Jesus freak who’s a complete harridan, engaging in the cruelest sort of deception to “save” her son from the wickedness of the world (and poor Kurtz surely merits some sort of reverse Oscar for her shrill, over-the-top performance)–only to abandon her “faith” at the first glimpse of provocative sexual fun (the soundtrack also includes the lovely tune “Bitch Slap Me Jesus”); but the Indian Pushpak (Brian George) turns out to be a sort of road- show missionary whose beliefs are ridiculed as well, and of course the running gag about the brainwashed cultists (supposedly mesmerized by a guy played by Fabio, of all people) implicitly suggests that all such belief is dangerous nonsense. As if all this weren’t bad enough, the flick also contains the now obligatory mix of double entendres and sniggering gags about erections, premarital sex and bodily functions. How the suits at Disney ever figured that a script with such stuff percolating within it could form a suitable basis for a “family movie” is really incomprehensible.

Bubble-brained and obnoxious, “Bubble Boy” lasts only 84 minutes, but it feels a thousand times longer than “Apocalypse Now Redux.” Advocacy groups for children afflicted with SCID are protesting the picture, quite rightly, for its crass insensitivity toward victims of the affliction; but whether you agree with their objections or not, you’d be well advised to join the boycott they’ve mounted on artistic, if not political, grounds. Another of the songs used in the picture–in a long sequence in which Jimmy, among other things, is pursued across the desert by a buzzard–is a lovely tune titled “Havin’ a Bad Day.” That could become the anthem for audiences unlucky enough to wander into this awful movie.