While the current glut of sequels and remakes may seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon, the film industry has been repeating itself almost since its beginning. The Count of Monte Cristo has existed on celluloid since 1912, the latest release being the twelfth feature film with that title in addition to three made for TV movies and three TV series; it’s the first new English theatrical version since the 1934 Robert Donat rouser. This newest adaptation uses some 21st century vernacular but leaves the classic story mostly intact. It’s a scenic escape to a land of swordplay and skullduggery, with a script wittier than those usually found in costume dramas.
For those who have somehow managed to avoid being assigned the Alexandre Dumas classic as youthful required reading, this is a basic tale of revenge and transformation set in Napoleonic France. Edmund Dantes (Jim Caviezel) is an honest but naive young sailor whose plans to marry the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) are shattered when his best friend Fernand (Guy Pearce), who wants Mercedes for himself, frames Edmund for treason. Dantes spends thirteen years in the infamous island hellhole Chateau D’if before escaping with the help of a fellow inmate (Richard Harris). He then – via an old standby, buried treasure – transforms himself into the wealthy and mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, methodically wreaking vengeance on those who betrayed him.
Director Kevin Reynolds’ career has ascended and fallen along with that of his one-time pal Kevin Costner. He made Costner’s first feature Fandango, then also steered the disappointing Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the abject disaster Waterworld, both with more input from Costner than he may have preferred. Here Reynolds shows that when left to his own devices he can handle action with flair, crafting a film that doesn’t drag too much between its sparkling swordfights and also offers some saber-sharp wit. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park) and production designer Mark Geraghty supply outdoor vistas that are appropriately majestic, and interiors alternately opulent and smokily atmospheric. By epic potboiler standards, it’s a sumptuous film to look at.
While nowhere near as anachronistic as A Knight’s Tale, the characters in Jay Wolpert’s script (his first) still tend to say things like "You don’t get out much, do you?" Wolpert (interestingly enough, the producer of TV game shows like The Price Is Right) imbues his secondary characters with most of the pithy zingers. And the secondary cast is of A-list quality, including Michael Wincott as Chateau D’if’s philosophic yet sadistic warden and the ever-unique Luis Guzman as the Count’s handservant. Hearing the normally street-smart Guzman deliver lines like "Shall I fetch your carriage, my liege?" is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Epic tales require epic villains, and Pearce delivers. He’s hissingly effective as a bad Guy, an insufferable fop who snarls venom at all the appropriate places, cruising for his comeuppance from the very first reel. As Dantes’ prison mentor, Harris looks like he was unearthed at an archeological dig and wryly provides the requisite measure of calm wisdom and plot exposition. If the cast has a small weak spot, it’s in the title role. Caviezel has managed to sleepwalk though previous roles (Angel Eyes, Frequency) merely on his soulful blue eyes and hangdog good looks. Here he’s much more believable as a victim than as a calculating perpetrator of revenge; the film crawls just a bit when neither he nor Harris is onscreen.
What used to be called a "cracking good yarn," The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t rocket science – or even catapult science. But its swashes are effectively buckled in all the right places, and as long as audiences don’t foolishly expect the Good Guy to lose they’ll have a fine time.
– Bob Aulert