The best swashbuckler for most of the family since "The Mask of Zorro," the latest attempt to film an Alexander Dumas story, "The Count of Monte Cristo," is the season's most pleasant surprise.
It's hard not to get at least a decent movie out of Dumas, but last year's "The Musketeer" showed it's no sure thing, and while Leonardo DiCaprio's "The Man in the Iron Mask" was okay, "The Count of Monte Cristo" is terrific entertainment.
On paper, this movie looked like a real loser. Kevin Reynolds directed the megabomb "Waterworld" (though Kevin Costner may be more to blame) and also directed Costner in "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves." When I saw this was coming out, I could just see another classic hero with a distinctive American accent and more anachronisms in the story than you could shake a stick at.
James Caviezel ("Frequency") is Edmond Dantes, a guileless and naive man of faith in post-Napoleon France. He is engaged to a beautiful woman, (Dagmara Dominczyk) and his employer has just made him a ship's captain two years ahead of schedule.
But Dantes was tricked by Napoleon himself into carrying a treasonous message, and jealous people around him, including his lifelong friend Mondego, a nobleman, (Guy Pierce of "Memento") use this to get him imprisoned without trial in a horrible dungeon. When he cries out to God for help, his captor mocks him that God does not visit the Chateau d'If.
"You are wrong," Dantes replies, and uses an inscription carved into the wall by a previous prisoner, "God will give me justice," as his inspiration. But as the years drag on, Dantes loses his faith. Just when he is about to sink finally into despair, the Priest, (Richard Harris) another convict, tunnels into Dantes's cell, having made a wrong turn on the way to the outside.
The Priest takes Dantes under his wing, educating him in politics, economics and mathematics; but can't quite get his protégé to give up his new religion-- revenge. When the Priest dies in a tunneling accident, he leaves Dantes the map to a vast treasure; and though he knows it could be used solely for revenge, challenges him to use it for good.
Dantes uses his wealth to become the Count of Monte Cristo, and sets in motion a plan to thoroughly ruin his enemies-- and maybe even the lover he left behind.
And that becomes the crux of the story. Will Dantes regain his world without losing his soul? Can he administer justice, but temper it with mercy? Most of all, will he regain his faith?
Caviezel is an unlikely choice to play a classic French hero, but his easygoing wide-eyed charm is perfect for the pre-imprisoned Dantes, and while he isn't quite imposing enough for the Count of Monte Cristo (he seems more peeved than enraged) he just fine. His accent occasionally does sound like the Long Island cop from "Frequency," however.
Richard Harris is great as the Priest, bringing just the right amount of humor and gravitas to his role, and even the gloom of the dungeons, you can see the twinkle in his eye. As the scoundrel, Mondego, Guy Pearce is a foppish bad guy straight out of the mold cast by Tim Roth in the great "Rob Roy" of a few years ago.
Like the old WWII movies where all the Nazis have pronounced British accents, French nobility in this story have upper class British accents, while the cruder characters sound like Cockneys. There are a few anachronisms-- I'm pretty sure no one said "motivation" in the 1820s, but it's not enough to sink this film, or make it campy like "A Knight's Tale."
There are some changes from the book, but--for once-- they are mostly for the better. There is more struggle with the moral dimension of vengeance than in the book, and also more struggle over matters of faith. In the book, Dantes never loses his belief, but is firmly convinced that he is the instrument of God's wrath, and even plays god in his ALLIES lives.
James Caviezel is a devout Catholic who credits his return to faith to the music of the Southern Gospel quartet, 4Him. This film, like "Frequency," supports his public statements that he is looking for material that is compatible with his commitment to Christ. "The Count of Monte Cristo" meets that, and almost every OTHER criteria you're looking for, in a piece of quality entertainment. Don't miss it.