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The Count of Monte Cristo   C+

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Writer: Jay Wolpert (based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas)
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Richard Harris, Dagmara Dominczyk, Michael Wincott, Luis Guzman.

Review by Rob Vaux

Alexandre Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo for a very different era. His earnest characters and straight-faced melodrama seem as far from the 21st century as a musketeer's dueling sword. Yet there's something strangely comforting about his style of storytelling. The heroes mean what they say, the villains are evil without becoming jokes, and the deus ex machina has an Old World charm that eludes modern storytellers. For that reason, books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers continue to endure while other tales fall by the wayside. Now comes a Count for the new millennium and everything old is new again. Director Kevin Reynolds has enough respect for Dumas to retain the novel's traditional feel; there's no ironic riffs, postmodern mugging, or Hong Kong fight scenes. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of excitement there either, and the lack of punch ultimately dooms an otherwise admirable effort.

The film immediately establishes a proper swashbuckling feel, as best friends Edmund Dantes (Jim Caviezel) and Mondego (Guy Pearce) leave their ship to find a cure for their ailing captain. They soon find themselves in a fight with English dragoons, followed by a clandestine meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte and a secret mission to Marseilles. The gorgeous sets (shot on location in Malta and Ireland) lend a strong historical atmosphere to the proceedings, and Reynolds sets the mood appropriately, with a nice beachside combat scene and a properly intriguing opening.

Dantes has a kind heart and a courageous soul, but as his noble-born companion points out, he lacks the cynicism to survive in the big bad world. How right he is: soon after arriving home, the duplicitous Mondego betrays Dantes to the local magistrate. Arrested on false charges, he is immediately secreted away to the notorious Chateau d'If, run by the sinister warden Dorleac (Michael Wincott -- you know you're in trouble when Michael Wincott's your jailer). With Dantes out of the way, Mondego is free to woo the man's girl (Dagmara Dominczyk), revel in his downfall and generally behave like an evil cad.

Meanwhile, Dantes suffers the torments of the damned, left for dead and stripped of everything but his desire for revenge. Salvation literally tunnels its way into his cell, in the form of fellow prisoner Abbe Faria (Richard Harris). A disgraced priest and former soldier, Faria has all of the answers Dantes needs: swordsmen training, a proper education, a plan for escape... and the map to a fabled treasure that will make them both rich beyond their dreams. The bits in the prison are the best in the film, as Faria instructs his new protégé in fighting, politics, and other niceties required to get even. Harris gives a solid cameo performance, and develops a nice chemistry with Caviezel. Reynolds plots out their scenes together with workmanlike competence, allowing the actors to work without interference.

As good as this section is, however, it doesn't hold up down the stretch. After completing an unexpected escape, Dantes recovers his old friend's treasure with the help of a trusted servant (Luis Guzman), and embarks upon an ambitious scheme for revenge. He recreates himself as the mysterious "Count of Monte Cristo," and infiltrates Paris society in order to get close to those who wronged him. This should be the emotional crescendo of the film, and yet it lacks the requisite punch. The revenge scenarios play out like clockwork, with few complications to interfere with Dantes' plan. Caviezel carries himself well, but he lacks the steel to really convince us of his character's rage, and Reynolds seems content to play it safe rather than go for the throat. Though a few routine twists pop up, we don't feel them the way we should, and the film's final third becomes almost preordained. The excitement and suspense promised by the opening simply fizzles out, leaving us to make do with some nice scenery and pretty costumes before the credits roll.

The supporting cast drops off once Harris departs the scene. Guzman seems uncomfortable with the period setting and Dominczyk fails to leave much of a mark. It thus falls to the bad guys to redeem things, and here The Count thankfully finds fertile ground. Nobody can play scumbags like Wincott, and Pearce makes a perfect bastard out of the duplicitous Mondego. Villains go a long way in movies like this, and with a little more oomph in the climax, they might have pulled this one out as well.

Sadly, Reynolds proves incapable of closing the deal. Even Dumas needs a little help to get by, and without something more stirring to finish things off, The Count of Monte Cristo wastes 100 minutes of decent buildup. Any swordsman will tell you it's not how you start the fight, but how you finish it. Despite some good qualities, The Count of Monte Cristo just doesn't have the energy to go the distance.

Review published 01.28.2002.

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