There is nothing terribly wrong with Kevin Reynolds' The Count of Monte Cristo, which the Internet Movie Database lists as the 18th remake of Alexandre Dumas' tale of innocence betrayed and avenged. It is neither a drag nor a gas; it neither betrays its source material nor adheres too slavishly to the densely penned novel. It is hardly the best Monte Cristo (Rowland Lee's 1934 version, with Robert Donat as the vengeful Edmond Dantes, stands high atop the decaying heap) or worst (the 1975 TV version, starring Richard Chamberlain, played like soap opera Masterpiece Theatre), and it's not at all the longest (the 1988 Bravo miniseries, with a most miscast Gérard Depardieu, runs 400 excruciating minutes), though in stretches this latest take feels very much like a film begging for an intermission or nap time. In all, it's a most competent film, which may not seem terribly high praise for a tale that's hard to mishandle, but Reynolds is, at least of late, not known for making films containing any modicum of proficiency, so consider this a relative triumph. There's a reason Disney is not advertising The Count of Monte Cristo as being from the man who brought you Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, two movies currently being screened for the eternally damned.
It's not completely fair to discard Reynolds' entire filmography, which includes 1985's Fandango (a modest, messy nostalgia trip about University of Texas grads, including Kevin Costner and Judd Nelson, on one last fling before Vietnam) and 1988's now-timely The Beast (based on William Mastrosimone's play about a Soviet tank soldier stranded in Afghanistan). It's long been said of Reynolds that his career was derailed by his association with his onetime friend Costner, who, to this day, believes Dances With Wolves deserved its accolades. Reynolds was no match for Costner's rampaging ego, which ultimately ruined their friendship -- and, ultimately, Reynolds' films, which smelled like Wolves and played like dogs. The director allowed his movies to get away from him: The man who previously had displayed an adequate knack for intimate character studies was suddenly cranking out self-absorbed action pics that cost, then lost, a fortune and rendered him leper and laughingstock in industry circles. That a studio would again allow him near an extravagant epic, this one filmed in Ireland and Malta, would be shocking if the film business wasn't populated by execs with short memories and shorter attention spans.
The Count of Monte Cristo is, blessedly, Costner-free, and in his stead is Frequency's Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes, the sailor betrayed and imprisoned over nothing more than another man's desire to claim his woman. Novice screenwriter Jay Wolpert, better known as co-creator of The Price Is Right and Match Game, has tweaked Dumas' tale and added an intriguing twist: Fernand Mondego (Memento's Guy Pearce), who barely knew Edmond in the novel, is now his best friend since childhood. When Fernand sells out Edmond to the complicit Villefort (James Frain), who jails Edmond in an island prison, he now does so out of a raging, long-simmering (and long-simpering) jealousy. "You're the son of a clerk," sneers the monied Fernand. "I'm not supposed to want to be you." (Pearce seems to think being covetous renders one a total bitch.) Fernand gets just what he wants: Edmond is banished to a lifetime of solitary confinement on France's Alcatraz, Château d'If, and Edmond's true love, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), finds comfort in Fernand's waiting arms.
At Château d'If, Edmond -- written off as dead by Mercedes, who has since married Fernand -- wastes away, but just barely; as it turns out, a single bowl of gruel, when consumed daily for several years, maintains one's strength and muscle mass. But Edmond is not alone forever: A priest, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), imprisoned for decades after refusing to turn over to Napoleon dozens of treasure chests filled with gold, tunnels through Edmond's floor and spends the next eternity (feels like it, anyway) teaching his young acolyte philosophy, economics and swordplay -- the fine art of revenge. Harris plays the priest like Yoda on a decades-long bender; one expects Peter O'Toole to climb up the tunnel bearing dry martinis, though Harris' are the rare scenes full of vigor and wit. Otherwise, Caviezel, looking as though he's stolen the facial hair of The Princess Bride's Christopher Guest, is left to brood and seethe, plotting the comeuppance of those who done him wrong once he escapes The Rock, finds the gold, hooks up with his manservant Jacopo (Stephen Soderbergh regular Luis Guzman, as a wise-assed and welcome anachronism) and reinvents himself as one pissed-off belle of the ball.
Compared to last year's The Musketeer, a Dumas redo that clumsily retrofitted Hollywood storytelling with Hong Kong style, The Count of Monte Cristo is positively elegant and dignified. It's absent the modern-day flourishes that enchant directors these days; there's no Matrix-like sword fight, no slow-mo Sensaround dazzle to detract from the well-told (if way-too-oft-told) tale. But in the end, it's a film so short on style and verve it feels lifeless; audiences might feel imprisoned in the Château d'If, praying for escape or quick death. Thankfully, one need not tunnel out of a movie theater.
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