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The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

DIRECTOR: Kevin Reynolds

CAST:

Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Dagmara Dominczyk, Luis Guzman, Richard Harris, James Frain, Michael Wincott, Henry Cavill

REVIEW:

Kevin Reynolds’ The Count of Monte Cristo, based on the book by Alexandre Dumas, is good old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure that harkens back to the sort popularized by Errol Flynn in the ‘30s. It packs swordfights, secret treasure, prison escapes, romance, betrayal, and revenge into a briskly-paced two hours, and if along the way it sacrifices a little depth, it’s not lacking in entertainment value.

The broad strokes of the story will probably be familiar to many viewers. French sailor Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel), a guileless soul in love with the beautiful Mercedes (Polish actress Dagmara Dominczyk), is betrayed by his best friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), after he ill-advisedly accepts a letter from the deposed Napoleon Bonaparte (Alex Norton) during a brief visit to the island where the former Emperor lives in exile- an act of treason which lands him in hot water with the Magistrate Villefort (James Frain), who has his own ulterior motives. Before he knows what’s happening, the bewildered Edmond is whisked off to the foreboding Chateau D’If, run by a warden (Michael Wincott) who helps his prisoners keep track of time by giving them a good whipping once a year. Edmond languishes in Chateau D’If until he finds a companion, the Priest Faria (Richard Harris), who took a wrong turn somewhere trying to dig his way out of the prison and ends up burrowing into Edmond’s cell. The Priest provides a little comic relief (when Edmond despondently mentions that he has counted all the stones in his cell, Faria brightly replies, ‘ah, but have you named them yet?’), but he also takes a mentor role, convincing Edmond to help him dig a tunnel to freedom and spending their substantial free time teaching him swordfighting and reading him the lessons of Machiavelli. When Edmond finally escapes, he has one thing on his mind- revenge. With the help of his manservant Jacupo (Luis Guzman), and buried treasure, Edmond reinvents himself as the Count of Monte Cristo and makes a grand entrance into Parisian high society, ingratiating himself with Villefort and Fernand (who, to add insult to injury, has married Mercedes) and setting plans for retribution in motion.

The acting is spotty.  The stiff and uncharismatic Jim Caviezel is not a dynamic hero, either as the guileless Edmund or the mysterious but ostensibly dashing Count of Monte Cristo.  Guy Pearce, by contast, preens and sneers for all he’s worth, like a wannabe knock-off of Tim Roth’s Archibald Cunningham from Rob Roy.  Mondego isn’t in the same league, and there’s nothing subtle or three-dimensional about the way Pearce plays him, but at least there’s some entertainment to be had from watching him strut around (reportedly Pearce turned down the lead role because he thought Mondego would be more fun).  Dagmara Dominczyk is Caviezel’s even more wooden love interest, while Luis Guzman is glaringly out of his comfort zone in a period role.  In the supporting cast, adequate support is provided by James Frain as the spineless Villefort, and Michael Wincott does a little scenery-chewing as the warden of Chateau D’If.  Unsurprisingly, the standout is Richard Harris, who mixes warmth, wisdom, and low-key humor, and seems right at home in his character’s skin in a way various other cast members do not, but his delightful stint is all-too-short.

At least one area where The Count of Monte Cristo unquestionably triumphs is set design and production values. The opulence of the mansions and balls and the period elegance of the character’s clothing, together with Andrew Dunn’s colorful cinematography, vividly taking us to 1800s France, make the movie consistently tasty for the eyes. On the other extreme, the ominous island prison Chateau D’If looks suitably grim and foreboding.

The area where The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t quite as strong is in storytelling. While faithful to the broad strokes of Dumas’ novel, the movie takes a Cliff Notes approach, running through at a fast pace and whittling the plot down to the basics. While the movie gives lip-service to the same theme, Dumas was much more concerned with the moral righteousness or lack thereof of Edmond’s vengeful plotting, with even Edmond himself increasingly conflicted over his actions and finding vengeance ultimately leaves him feeling hollow.  The movie also SPOILER WARNING wraps he, Mercedes, and their son Albert (Henry Cavill) up in a neat little one big happy family bow, while the novel had him rejecting Mercedes and finding love with another. Characters like Villefort’s wife Valentina (Helen McCrory), who played significant roles in the book, are reduced to window dressing here, and the various villains’ downfalls all come a little disappointingly quickly, while more build-up might have let us savor it a little more, although the actual moments of revenge are milked sweetly. It doesn’t take a lot to get audiences rooting for an innocent man dealing revenge on his betrayers, and Villefort’s and particularly Mondego’s comeuppances are delivered satisfactorily. There’s also some thudding dialogue— ‘in God’s name, why??’— and a running unnecessarily added subplot about Edmond losing and, of course, regaining faith in God that’s annoyingly heavy-handed. The latter is a minor, but irksome point. Also, Edmond’s naiveté runs to the point where it borders on outright stupidity, and it’s one of those ‘suspension of disbelief’ deals, like Clark Kent’s glasses, when no one is able to recognize him because he’s grown longer hair and a goatee. Where Monte Cristo really hits its stride is colorful choreography, pretty clothes, an energetic pace, and spirited swordplay, and it serves up sufficient amounts of all of the above. At the end of the day, Monte Cristo’s combination of swashbuckling, romance, intrigue, and sweet revenge makes it a surefire crowd-pleaser and a ripping, if imperfect, yarn. And it’s refreshing in a way to see a movie not saturated with CGI or fast-cutting action sequences or car chases and such an unabashed throwback to good old-fashioned swashbuckling entertainment.

At the bottom line, this is meant to entertain us, and does a good job of doing just that. The Count of Monte Cristo might not be a deep cinematic experience, but it’s a fun ride and if you’re looking for two hours of enjoyable escapism, it certainly fits the bill.

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