What a strange experience is it to watch "The Count Of Monte Cristo" (IMDb listing) an adventure story of the highest caliber, and not have the cast running about performing flips or fighting on wires. I've become so accustomed to this foolishness lately, that now I expect it from any film that features hand-to-hand combat. What a lovely surprise it is to see that director Kevin Reynolds ("Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves," "Waterworld") has chosen not to fill his picture with such nonsense, but to let the story lead the way this time. It might feel old fashioned, maybe even squaresville, but the new "Monte Cristo" is an invigorating adventure that doesn't assault the audience with visuals, but rather tempts them with true drama and perfectly staged action sequences.
Based on the oft-filmed novel by Alexandre Dumas, "Monte Cristo" stars James Caviezel ("Frequency") as Edmund Dantes, a slow-witted but accomplished seafarer who shares his adventures with Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk, "Rock Star"), the woman he loves, and Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), his cherished friend. When falsely accused of treason by a corrupt military officer (James Frain, "Reindeer Games"), and betrayed by Mondego, Edmund is sent to prison for the rest of his life. Watching his life slowly drain away in front of his eyes, Edmund finds solace in a much older fellow prisoner named Faria (Richard Harris), who needs Edmund's help to escape. Over the course of 13 years, Faria trains Edmund in the ways of royalty and swordfighting, in exchange for the younger man's digging prowess. Upon escaping, Edmund assumes the identity of the regal Count Of Monte Cristo, and sets an elaborate revenge plot in motion on his enemies and society.
I've enjoyed Kevin Reynolds's work for some time now, save for the lone Samuel L. Jackson turkey "187." Reynolds has a master's degree in staging stunts and action set pieces, and his long history with this type of filmmaking is welcomed back in "Monte Cristo." While the story flows with a time-tested, predictable fluidity, the action scenes are what people have come to see, and Reynolds doesn't disappoint. The violence in the film is clean, without self-referential visual gunk to cloud it up. It's simple swashbuckling, and it's staged and executed from the heart, not the hard drive. While there are films out there that use technology and Asian influence to better themselves ("Charlie's Angels"), "Monte Cristo" plants its roots squarely in the Basil Rathbone realm of action, and it doesn't rely much on tinkering to finish the job. It's a long film (135 minutes), but it accomplishes what so many adventure films cannot: it earns its thrills organically.
Credit that to Reynolds and Disney for taking the high road. Don't believe me? Check out another Dumas adaptation from last fall called "The Musketeer." It's a clear example of how modern cinematic devices, even those that are terribly bandwagonesque (Asian fight choreographers), can shoot holes through what many believe to be bulletproof source material.
If there was anything that I didn't truly enjoy about "Monte Cristo," it was the one element that this story does not need: comedy. Luis Guzman ("Traffic") was cast to provide laughs amongst the rage, and his very appearance deflates the film. While Guzman has been used rather effectively in the past ("Boogie Nights"), in "Monte Cristo" he sticks out like a sore thumb. The picture doesn't need the sort of goofball confusion Guzman brings to the table. It's much better off just wallowing in brood. It's more than a little depressing to see Reynolds and Disney slightly second guess their film like this.
As the Count, James Caviezel does a masterful job as the seething dagger of vengeance. Though this fine actor lays the innocence on a little thick in the film's first act, the naivete erodes away to a satisfying boil of pure rage for the rest of the picture. Caviezel balances these more violent emotions by allowing the pain of a life thrown away to be easily read on his face. It permits the audience to not be turned off by the contemptuous agenda that Edmund has for his enemies.
And nobody deserves more contempt than Guy Pearce's Mondego. A character founded on betrayal, lust and deception, Pierce plays up every last intolerable character trait with more sniveling rage than I've seen an actor dare to reveal. Maybe Pearce simply understands the type of spirited film he's in, but the actor hits all the right notes with his performance without crossing the line into cartoon. He invites the audience to hiss and boo at his nefarious deeds, and cheer during his comeuppance. You gotta love that.
That's another example of the beauty in which this film has been created under. There is no winking at the audience, nor are their unreasonable dramatic expectations placed on the narrative. It's high adventure with no cynicism allowed. In a cinematic world that cannot indulge itself fully without being painfully aware of itself, "The Count Of Monte Cristo" only asks that the audience join in on the fun.
Filmfodder Grade: A-