The classic Monte Cristo sandwich is a rich confection -- almost inedibly so -- composed of layered ham, turkey, swiss cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, and crusty bread, all battered in egg and fried in hot grease. The diner is meant to dip this in jam before shoving it down his gullet.
The 2002 incarnation of The Count of Monte Cristo is a remarkably similar experience, full of pleasing flavors yet probably too rich for everyday consumption -- but, as with all things, I figure you'll eat it if you're hungry enough. Sure enough, in this snail-slow winter movie season, Monte Cristo is just about the best thing going. Like the sandwich, this isn't gourmet fare -- it's a crowd pleaser meant to entertain for a few brief moments, nothing more.
The story (remade as a film for at least the 30th time -- really) is a classic revenge thriller told as a traditional high adventure. Innocent Edmond Dantes (James Caviezel) finds himself wrongfully imprisoned for treason in Napoleonic France. Over a decade in the clink, he figures out what happened -- his best pal Mondego (Guy Pearce) set him up in order to abscond with Edmond's fiancée Mercedes (Dagmara Domincyzk) and weasel his way into more power and money. Edmond stews in prison, and when he's not digging a tunnel to escape, he's getting coached to read, think, and swordfight, courtesy of the prisoner-next-door (Richard Harris). Eventually he gets out, follows his cellmate's treasure map to a conveniently enormous stash of buried treasure, and reinvents himself as a foreign Count, all in to earn his vengeance with Mondego, as well as the magistrate (James Frain) who served as his accomplice.
Treasure maps and jealous lovers? If it sounds like an old story that's because it is an old story -- written in 1844 when no one could see a twist coming to save their life. The heady tale is played without a trace of irony, even when Napoleon strolls around on Elba, offering wine to his visitors. But there's nothing quite as satisfying in the movies as vengeance properly delivered, and director Kevin Reynolds (best know for inflicting us with Waterworld) pulls no punches in making us feel sorry for Edmond and cheering him along all the way. (No, really -- when it looked like Edmond might get shot toward the end of the film, a woman in our audience screamed out "NOOO!!!!" Now that's committing to a movie!)
Caviezel and Pearce perform admirably as sparring friends-cum-enemies, and supporting players Harris and Luis Guzmán (as Edmond's first friend post-jailbreak) are welcome additions to the cast. The score is good, the direction is a bit plodding but it follows the story like an arrow, and the photography is well done, too -- all of which manages to overcome the far-fetched script and some points of goofiness (like when acrobats rappel down from a hot-air balloon bearing the new Count to a party).
And in retrospect, those "twists" aren't so bad after all, even if they are 158 years old. And you know what? I could eat.
The DVD features a rather pedantic commentary from Reynolds plus about 10 minutes of deleted scenes. Various short documentaries on author Alexandre Dumas, the writing process, set design, and swordfighting round out the disc.