If every generation gets the movie version of “The Three Musketeers” it deserves, we should weep for ours. A splashy but silly and bombastic (as well as curiously dull) farrago more reminiscent of “Pirates of the Caribbean” than Dumas, Paul W.S. Anderson’s take on the swashbuckler, awash with CGI effects, is even worse a perversion of a popular period piece than Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” was. But what do you expect of the guy responsible for the “Resident Evil” franchise?
The script by Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies still deals with political machinations at the court of Louis XIII of France, with Cardinal Richelieu and his minions angling to seize power by fomenting war with England, represented by the Duke of Buckingham, via a plot involving some stolen royal diamonds. But it adds to the mix some flying machines, part dirigible and part warship, supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci, as well as lots of modern “Matrix”-style physical moves that make the ordinary swordplay look positively anemic. The result takes the tale ever further from the source than Richard Lester’s 1974 picture, which turned it into a rowdy romp, and Stephen Herek’s 1993 one, which was basically “Young Guns” in seventeenth-century dress.
By contrast this movie opts to be the kind of thing that appeals to today’s audience of teenage boys—a typically overblown action-adventure in which altercations become cartoonish affairs in which people sail through the air, often in slow motion, to trash their opponents or wing down walls to break into locked rooms. (The latter is especially the case with Milla Jovovich, the director’s wife, who plays Milady de Winter, the double agent who sells her services to both Richelieu and Buckingham, as the same sort of simmering—and acrobatic—femme fatale she essayed in the “Resident Evil” pictures. The only difference here is that she wears splendid period dresses, which she sometimes tastefully dispenses with to perform her astonishing physical feats in embroidered undergarments.)
And so far we haven’t even mentioned the titular heroes—Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), Aramis (Luke Evans, whom you might easily mistake for Orlando Bloom) and Porthos (Ray Stevenson)—who become basically peripheral characters here, but in any event are portrayed as quite contemporary action-hero types, as adept at firing off what look like ninja weapons and navigating airships with cannons and Gatling guns aboard as they are with swords and fists. Anyway, though they’re at least distinguishable—Athos the surly one, Aramis the straight-laced one ex-priest and Porthos the jovial muscleman—they’re a curiously colorless group.
They’re joined, of course, by young Musketeer wannabe D’Artagnan, played by Logan Lerman. It isn’t the actor’s youth that’s the problem here—in the 1993 picture he was played by Chris O’Donnell, after all. It’s the modern vibe that Anderson has him give to the character, who’s obviously intended as the surrogate for the target teen viewers. Though he wears seventeenth-century clothes, he performs like a figure in a video game, and his attitude is so twenty-first century that you half-expect him to address his comrades as “dude.” With its cockiness but lack of compensatory earnestness, it’s a turn almost as bad as the modern action-hero spin Robert Downey, Jr. gave to the shamus of Baker Street.
The contemporary spin extends to the subplot about Louis XIII (Freddie Fox) and his queen (Juno Temple). They do a young-lovers’ act—the man the twittering, shy swain and the woman a self-possessed, supportive spouse—that could have stepped out of a sitcom but for the fine dress and palatial surroundings. As for the big-name villains, Christoph Waltz glides his way through the part of Richelieu without engendering even a modicum of menace, and the real Orlando Bloom sneers and preens so incessantly as Buckingham that he seems to be auditioning for the part of Snidely Whiplash in some silent movie. James Corden gets a few laughs as the Musketeers’ servant Planchet, who appears to have stepped out of a Monty Python sketch, but Mads Mikkelsen’s snide, glowering Rochefort—with whom D’Artegnan has a acrobatic show-down atop Notre Dame, on the steeple of which one of those anachronistic airships has been pinioned—comes across like an imitation of the younger Chris Sarandon.
The one impressive element of this new “Musketeers” is the physical production (with design by Paul Denham Austerberry, art direction supervised by Nigel Churcher, set decoration by Philippe Turture and costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud), which is eye-popping in its expansiveness and color. Much is accomplished with model work and computer-generated imagery, of course, and it doesn’t look genuine. But its candy-hued baroque touches are engaging nonetheless, though the unecessary 3-D doesn’t help them. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said of Paul Haslinger’s depressingly humdrum score.
Dumas’ novel has been very loosely treated in previous adaptations, of course—and to be honest it’s hardly good enough to require it be treated like Holy Writ. It’s survived the more brutal ones intact, and will survive Anderson’s opulent but dumb and misguided makeover too.