Alexandre Dumas would have been right at home in Hollywood. In the 19th century, Dumas cranked out sprawling tales as quickly as possible, usually with little regard to their quality. Critics hated them. Readers loved them. In his private life, he nailed everything in a corset and spent money faster than he could make it. Anything sound familiar? If he’d been born in Santa Monica in 1960, he’d currently be in talks to write and direct The Nine Musketeers, the sixth sequel to his billion-dollar franchise. In this one, a ragtag band of freedom fighters forms a baseball team that beats France in the World Series.
But Dumas died in 1870, shortly after Robert Altman was born. He’s still a Hollywood player, though. In the last 10 years alone, 11 mostly terrible films have been made from his works across the globe. Leonardo DiCaprio nearly suffocated his career while wearing an iron mask in 1998; just last year, Peter Hyams’ gloomy, revisionist The Musketeer darkened theaters for about two weeks.
The Count of Monte Cristo, the latest adaptation to take flight, is thoroughly competent and intermittently exciting, but it doesn’t have the inspiration or the courage to be anything truly remarkable. Director Kevin Reynolds, best-known as the codependent facilitator of Kevin Costner’s addiction to bad acting (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld), is content to fashion a briskly entertaining yarn that’s just enough of a departure from Dumas’ 1844 original to ruin it.
You should know the plot: Nice French sailor Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) is unjustly accused of treason by Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) and ripped from the heaving bodice of his love, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). In the film, Fernand is transformed into a childhood friend of both Edmond and Mercedes, a nice touch that further underscores the treachery. Edmond is sent to a bleak coastal prison called Chateau d’If (it’s also where Rudyard Kipling was locked up for writing bad poetry, by the way).
During 13 torturous years, he meets Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), who teaches him the finer points of tunnel-digging. Once he escapes, Edmond finds the spectacular treasure hidden by the Abbe and goes about serving a nice cold plate of revenge to the guys who framed him, all in the guise of an invented nobleman: the Count of Monte Cristo.
Reynolds has tried to make a crowd-pleasing period piece in the adventurous style of the recent Mummy films. He conjures a few gorgeous visuals, the best of which is Edmond’s hot-air balloon entrance to his first public appearance as the count. The pulp aspects of the story are well-captured.
But at its core, Dumas’ story is not an adventure tale—it’s a romance, a melodrama, and a seminal treatise on revenge. As such, it should get its momentum from great acting, not special effects or set-pieces. Many of the film’s problems are rooted in terrible casting, but the actors are no help, either.
Pearce draws on his experience playing a drag queen (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) to invest his smarmy nobleman with way too much camp and cynicism (along with the most omnipresent sneer this side of Michelle Rodriguez in The Fast and the Furious). When Edmond gets the big payback, Pearce can’t even summon the interest to look surprised.
Caviezel, by contrast, looks like a soap opera star who can’t believe he beat out Scott Baio and Dean Cain for this really bitchin’ part. Edmond goes through one of the more complete transformations in literary history, but Caviezel provides no glance, no tenor of voice, no spark that indicates he understands this. Even his goatee looks forced.
But don’t cry for Dumas. He probably would have loved this uneven blend of commerce and culture. His stories were for the people—even the people who didn’t know what to do with them.