By Rob Blackwelder
The latest big screen adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo" has such a conspicuously clean Hollywood ending that, even though I've never read the book, I was suspicious and went online to bone up a little before writing this review.
Sure enough, even the central act of revenge that motivates this classic tale of obstinate, meticulous reprisal has been unduly rewritten to make for a cinematic and action-packed climax. The hero has been acquitted of his less honorable acts, the fates of characters have been drastically altered (those that haven't been dropped completely, that is), and comic relief has been shoehorned into the story so crudely you can almost see the impatient studio suit tapping his foot on the set and saying, "Can't this be funnier?"
Yet even with these gross departures, this "Count" has such a flavorful, popcorn-literature air about it that at its worst it still recalls the best of Golden Era swashbuckler flicks.
Handsomely lanky Jim Caviezel ("Frequency," "Angel Eyes") stars as Edmond Dantes, a young sailor from 19th Century Marseilles who is betrayed by his wealthy, politically connected best friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce, "Memento"). Framed for treason and imprisoned in an remote island dungeon, once-naive Edmond is kept alive by his fantasies of retribution and by his camaraderie with a scholarly, elderly inmate (the charismatic Richard Harris) who tunnels his way into our hero's cell while trying to escape.
Educated and trained in swordplay by his companion over 13 years while the two men dig together toward their freedom, Dantes finally makes his escape not through their tunnel, but in a body bag meant for the old man.
Before he died, Edmond's mentor told him of a treasure hidden on the isle of Monte Cristo. It is with the riches he discovers there that our hero fashions himself into a mysterious, fabulously wealthy and flamboyant count in order to begin his scrupulous, calculated and comprehensive campaign of revenge and ruin.
"They must see their whole world, everything they hold dear, ripped from them as it was ripped from me," Edmond seethes as he plunges into French society as the Count of Monte Cristo and cozies up to the enemies who no longer recognize him.
Director Kevin Reynolds, no stranger to the souping-up and dumbing-down of period classics (witness "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), makes a lot of mistakes in "Monte Cristo," not the least of which is fabricating a villain so cartoonishly evil that you can't help but wonder how Edmond got through their life-long friendship without recognizing the guy cannot be trusted.
But talented actor and good sport that he is, Pearce runs with this characterization, embodying Fernand's egomaniacal sense of superiority with supercilious sniffs and odious stares as he flagrantly cheats on his beautiful wife (Dagmara Dominczyk) who had once been Edmond's fiancée.
Reynolds does a poor job of establishing in early scenes that young Edmond is an uneducated, lower-caste man who might -- even after being set up as a traitor to France -- willingly climb into a paddy wagon when he's told it's a carriage that will take him home.
The director even abandons the moral of the story -- that happiness cannot be found in revenge.
But this cinematically fluent "Count of Monte Cristo" still qualifies as a highbrow guilty pleasure because, while it may in many ways insult Dumas, it doesn't insult your intelligence. The stimulating story arc is actually all the more gratifying in this libertine adaptation for the very reason that you already know where it's going.
After Edmond ties a string on his lover's finger because he can't afford a ring, you're longing to see that string again in the last act, proving she never stopped loving him. You're itching for the triumphant return of that chess piece Fernand and Edmond once exchanged to declare each other "king of the moment," because you know it will reveal to the villain just who has destroyed him.
The dialogue is written with enough eloquence to be period-appropriate without making the cast's American accents seem out of place. The costumes and locations are sumptuous, elegant and beautifully photographed. The score is exciting without being intrusive. The picture's entire ambiance harks so much of the days of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks that at times you might imagine you're seeing it in black-and-white.
But the movie's best asset is Jim Caviezel, whose performance goes through an amazing evolution from innocent youth to faithless, psychologically subjugated prisoner to motivated, eager pupil to elegant erudite nobility -- all with an unwavering, character-defining fire in his eyes.
He raises "The Count of Monte Cristo" above its oh-so-Hollywood rejiggering and its conventional direction to give the film a soul and an unabashed sense of good old-fashioned escapism.
Run time: 131 mins
In Theaters: Friday 25th January 2002
Box Office USA: $54.1M
Distributed by: Touchstone Pictures
Production compaines: Incorporated Television Company (ITC), Norman Rosemont Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Fresh: 105 Rotten: 38
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Richard Chamberlain as Edmond Dantès, Kate Nelligan as Mercédès, Isabelle De Valvert as Haydée, Tony Curtis as Fernand Morcerf Mondego, Dominic Guard as Albert de Morcerf Mondego, Louis Jourdan as Villefort, Trevor Howard as Abbé Faria, Taryn Power as Valentine de Villefort, Dominic Barto as Bertuccio, Donald Pleasence as Danglars
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