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Down for the Count

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Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword obviously saw an advance screening of Kevin Reynolds' The Count of Monte Cristo. Alexandre Dumas deserves posthumous props. The themes of his popular 1845 novel somehow manage to survive Reynolds' impoverished imagination and directorial mediocrity, which includes -- but is unfortunately not limited to -- a batch of rather poorly filmed swordplay. For a film that examines man's relationship to injustice, it's sad to say that the biggest one of all is committed behind the camera.

Reynolds is a marvel. Most people who call themselves filmmakers would have been finished off for good by the one-two punch of Rapa Nui and Waterworld, but somehow he keeps crawling back. Scarier even than studio execs continuing to give Reynolds the green light is the fact that Monte Cristo offers this dolt more material to work with than he deserves, and still he blows it. Instead of rising to the level of the classic story he is trying to tell, Reynolds makes high adventure sheer drudgery in a washed-out world where Machiavellian machinations and man's struggle with God resemble nothing so much as a hurried daytime soap opera plot. Reynolds must have skipped film school the day aspiring directors learn that movies are supposed to give glorious life to their subjects, not suck it out of them.

Like so many big-screen disasters, Monte Cristo starts off well enough. The casting is, for the most part, solid. Young French sailor Edmond Dantes (the always-compelling Jim Caviezel) has it all: a beautiful fiancee (Dagmara Dominczyk), a promotion to ship's captain and a daring upper-class young friend in Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce, who seems to have his foppish sneer etched on for the duration). As we see early on when he meets up with the exiled Napoleon (dead-ringer Alex Norton), Dantes also has a terminal case of naivete that's going to cause him quite a few problems not so far down the road.

Mondego, it seems, hates his friend. He wants his promotion, he wants his fiancee, he wants his life. And so he simply takes it, orchestrating Dantes' arrest on trumped-up charges of treason. With the help of the positively reptilian magistrate Villefort (James Frain) -- who, it turns out, has his own complicated reasons for wanting Edmond out of the picture -- Dantes is sent away to the godforsaken Chateau D'If. Fiancee Mercedes is led to believe he has been executed, and Mondego moves in, thinking he's in the clear. He has no way of knowing that justice has other plans.

The island prison of Chateau D'If is where this film works best. (Stone walls, it turns out, are Reynolds' best milieu.) The script here takes its time; later it will run with breakneck speed and not so much come to a conclusion as crash into one. Michael Wincott is delicious as the bored, sadistic warden, who strips away Dantes' belief in his fellow man and then his God. He is topped only by the truly matchless Richard Harris as Abbe Faria, an imprisoned priest who worms his way into Dantes' cell -- and his life -- and gives him the keys to freedom, if not the means to revenge: an education, a treasure map, an escape route, a clue.

Alas, it is when Dantes swims away from the Chateau D'If that The Count of Monte Cristo begins to sink. The questions of God and justice, broached so eloquently in prison, evaporate in Jay Wolpert's script. A wigged Luis Guzman (in all senses of the word) shows up as right-hand man Jacopo, not knowing what he's doing here any more than we do. The revenge it supposedly takes Dantes years to engineer takes mere minutes to execute. Word is, the Monte Cristo script kept changing during filming. Obviously not enough.

Worst of all, our hapless hero -- transformed now into the fearsome Count -- may have a clearer vision of the world around him, but our director does not. Perhaps Reynolds is going for a visual realism, an everyday look noticeably absent from most lavish period pieces. The tricky thing about realism, though, is that it's supposed to make things more real. It is decidedly not supposed to make things more murky, smoky, faded, poorly lit and cheap-looking. And if realism is the goal, stop moving the camera around so much and tone down the editing. Most scenes -- the Count's party, Carnival in Rome -- look like the budget came up short and the cameraman came on crack. A distractingly shot sword fight, the film's "big finish," is so poorly cut together that momentum overrides moment, and all is lost.

When viewers are distracted by what they don't (or can't) see, it's a bad movie. It's also a bad movie when several television productions spring to mind that achieve realism but not at the expense of the eye (A&E's Horatio Hornblower series, for starters). But it's an even worse movie when a great premise and a good cast are criminally squandered by minor Hollywood players, whose talents, quite simply, don't count.

Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce hack away at each other while director Kevin Reynolds hacks away at The Count of Monte Cristo.
  • Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce hack away at each other while director Kevin Reynolds hacks away at The Count of Monte Cristo.

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