There once was a time when Hollywood could make swashbucklers with energy and flair. One need only revisit the old pictures with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn to see how well it was done, and even in the fifties, when such flicks were in decline, the mediocre examples of the genre often still had some residual panache. But the form went into precipitous decline in the sixties, and recent attempts to revive it have proven unfortunate. The 1993 version of “The Three Musketeers,” for instance–which refashioned the Dumas piece in a jokey “Young Guns” way (some wag called it “Young Swords”)–was bad enough, but last year’s lumpish “The Musketeer,” which made the mistake of trying to impose a martial-arts mentality on the same material and wound up even worse, suggested that the studios have totally lost their touch with such stuff. Now this lumbering retelling of Dumas’ other oft-filmed tale of confirms that conclusion. The result should probably come as no surprise, deriving as it done from Kevin Reynolds, who made the Robin Hood legend into a turgid bore with his then-buddy Kevin Costner a decade ago (it was only Alan Rickman’s extravagance as the Sheriff of Nottingham that gave that picture a pulse; even Morgan Freeman was subpar). This new version of “The Count of Monte Cristo” is a dull and depressing dodo of a movie, nicely appointed but lethargic and lackluster.
In this retelling, the hero of the familiar tale of betrayal and revenge in post-Napoleonic Europe is played by Jim Caviezel; his Edmund Dantes is a pleasant, if somewhat dim, mariner betrayed by best friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), who also steals his fiancé Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). In the awful prison to which he’s sentenced, Dantes is alternately tortured by the sadistic warden and tutored in culture and swordsmanship by an elderly inmate (Richard Harris), through whose unhappy death the young man is able to escape. After a stint as a pirate (an episode that secures him an ever-faithful retainer, played here by Luis Guzman), Dantes uses a treasure he’s retrieved to impersonate a nobleman and take his revenge against Mondego, his now-wife Mercedes (who’d been told that Edmund was dead) and their son Albert (Henry Cavill). A twist insures, however, that Edmund will, while dispatching Mondego, wind up with the family he’s always deserved.
The mustiness of Dumas’ story could conceivably be revitalized by a canny director, but Reynolds isn’t the man for the job. He treats the piece far too seriously, and stages sequence after sequence with an intolerably heavy hand. The result is a plodding costume epic not appreciably preferable to the 1975 TV version that featured the inexpressive Richard Chamberlain and a scenery-chewing Tony Curtis. Caviezel tries hard in the title role, but his mannered style seems altogether too modern for the part. He spends the first half of the picture playing the same shy, halting good guy he was in flicks like “Frequency” and “Pay It Forward,” shifting in the second half to a sturdier, more heroic mold in which, despite his efforts, he seems ill-at-ease. Pearce sinks his teeth into the role of Mondego all too ferociously; it’s as though he’s trying to channel Basil Rathbone’s snarling villainy, and the result is unintentionally funny–a sad decline from “Memento.” Dominczyk is a curiously pallid, though statuesque, part of the romantic triangle, and while Guzman gets easy laughs as Dantes’ eager servant (he owes his master his life, of course), he shatters the period mood with his contemporary shtick. Harris is more animated than he was in “Harry Potter,” but he’s still playing a variant of Yoda, and his effort to be angelic is strenuous indeed.
From a purely visual standpoint “The Count of Monte Cristo” is sumptuous, but like the recent “The Affair of the Necklace,” it’s far too respectful and deliberate for its own good. The picture is acceptable enough as a museum piece, but it’s a peculiarly enervated, desultory example of a cinematic action-adventure.