If you don't include (and there is no reason you should) 1948's "The Countess of Monte Cristo," starring celebrated skater Sonja Henie, at least five filmed versions of Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo" predate the current one. Too bad they didn't leave well enough alone.
It's obvious, of course, why they didn't. Dumas' enormous novel, so big it's often read in abridged form, has a revenge-with-a-capital-R plot that's overwhelming. Not so overwhelming, however, that director Kevin Reynolds and screenwriter Jay Wolpert didn't think, with typical Hollywood boldness, that they couldn't improve on it with a bit of tinkering.
Best remembered for sparring with actor Kevin Costner over the shape of two films he directed, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "Waterworld," Reynolds knows about picturesque visuals and spirited swordplay. An island off Malta doubles nicely as the dread Chateau d'If. "Monte Cristo's" co-stars Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce put in at least three hours a day of fencing training every day for a month, and it shows. Unfortunately, as those who remember the ill-fated South Seas epic "Rapa Nui" can testify, Reynolds has the most minimal sense of what dialogue should sound like or how to illustrate emotion in any but the most obvious, turning-over-furniture-means-I'm-angry way.
Writer Wolpert, according to the press notes, not surprisingly has "spent much of his professional life as a producer-creator and developer of television game, reality and talk shows." His dialogue is of the leaden and obvious "Why, in God's name, why?" variety, the kind of writing that has Napoleon Bonaparte seriously say, "When you've walked as many battlefields as I have, you can feel death."
When Wolpert's thudding dialogue is combined with Reynolds' tendency to direct things in the most bald-faced way, the results are not good.
While not quite "Rapa Nui, the French Years," "Monte Cristo," uncertain whenever a character doesn't have a sword in his hand, is unable to grip us as much as it should.
Speaking of Napoleon, it's a chance meeting with him on Elba that gets our hero, young sailor Edmond Dantes (Caviezel), into a world of trouble after he innocently agrees to deliver a letter for the great man.
Edmond is such a guileless and completely trusting innocent that someone actually says, "God knows how you are going to survive in this world." He has no idea that his best friend and shipmate, the aristocratic Fernand Mondego (Pearce), is jealous of him and smolders with resentment at Edmond's upcoming marriage to the nubile Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk).
With the connivance of spineless magistrate Villefort (James Frain), Edmond is plucked from his happy life and deposited in the Chateau d'If prison.
He protests his innocence, and although the dark warden Dorleac (Michael Wincott) agrees with him ("This is where they put the ones they're ashamed of"), the man is too busy whipping everybody in sight to really care.
After spending so many years scratching "God will give me justice" on his cell walls that he comes to resemble Tom Hanks in "Cast Away," Edmond gets lucky and stumbles across the Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), a fellow prisoner.
Looking like a combination of Rip van Winkle and health faddist Gypsy Boots, the Abbe has been inside so long he's given names to all the stones in his cell. He teaches Edmond everything he knows, from reading to swordplay, and tops off this university of tough love by telling the young man the location of a limitless fortune that will make him richer than anyone's dreams.
Escaping the chateau after 13 years of very hard time and in the company of a trusty servant (Luis Guzman) he acquires in a knife fight, Edmond reinvents himself as the fabulously wealthy count. He moves to Paris to take his secret revenge on all who wronged him, including poor Mercedes, who married Fernand when she thought Edmond was dead.
In addition to making Edmond and Fernand best friends, something Dumas never thought of, "Monte Cristo" takes other liberties with the story, modernizing it with ironic wisecracks and coming up with an ending that has more in common with "The Bold and the Beautiful" than anything the author intended.
More perplexing than the film's conclusion is how unable it is to take advantage of the talents of its co-stars.
Although he tries hard, Caviezel is better suited to playing the kind of poetic deserter he was in "The Thin Red Line" than someone who burns with a cold and pitiless flame.
And the gifted Pearce, who probably would have been more appropriate as Edmond, is defeated by the one-dimensionality of the project. Revenge may be sweet, but this is one "Monte Cristo" that leaves a sour taste.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for adventure violence/swordplay and some sensuality. Times guidelines: It's all fairly genteel.
'The Count of Monte Cristo'
Jim Caviezel...Edmond Dantes
Guy Pearce...Fernand Mondego
Richard Harris...Abbe Faria
Touchstone Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment present a Birnbaum/Barber production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Kevin Reynolds. Producers Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Jonathan Glickman. Executive producer Chris Brigham. Screenplay Jay Wolpert, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Editors Stephen Semel, Chris Womack. Costumes Tom Rand. Music Edward Shearmur. Production design Mark Geraghty. Supervising art director Terry Pritchard. Set decorator Johnny Byrne. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times