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.