by Alexandre Paquin
If the swashbuckler film is not dead, this film will leave you wishing it were.When Alexandre Dumas (Sr.) published his novel "The Three Musketeers" in 1844, he was already an established playwright. But "The Three Musketeers" was of such popularity among his contemporaries that Dumas, to keep up with the demand for new adventures featuring the four musketeers from his first novel, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan, wrote two sequels, "Vingt ans après" (1845), and "Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, ou Dix ans plus tard" (1850), as well as a play based on the first sequel (also 1845). Although Dumas's authorship of several of his works is often disputed, and in spite of the fact that most of the story line of "The Three Musketeers" has often been attributed to collaborator Auguste Maquet, his novel remains as fresh as when it was first published, more than 150 years ago.
"A Disgrace to the Swashbuckler Genre."
It was only a matter of time before the story would be adapted to the screen. In 1921, legendary star Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.) starred as D'Artagnan in his film version of the novel, and in the years to follow, countless other adaptations would be made, including a parody starring the Ritz Brothers in 1939, a series of films directed by Richard Lester -- "The Three Musketeers" (1973), "The Four Musketeers" (1974) and "Return of the Musketeers" (1989) --, and a stylized, quasi-musical yet faithful version in 1948, directed by George Sidney and featuring an all-star cast led by Gene Kelly, which is still regarded as the finest adaptation. As well, other films based on Dumas's sequels are numerous, particularly the "man in the iron mask" theme, which was used in films ranging from Douglas Fairbanks's 1929 version, "The Iron Mask", to the 1998 film starring Leonardo Di Caprio, and as well as various films set in pre-revolutionary France, notably two versions of "Cyrano de Bergerac" (1950 and 1990). All this put together gives to Dumas's works an air of déjà vu, but also an international flavour which could help in foreign markets, especially, of course, in France.
The last adaptation of "The Three Musketeers" to the screen was the Disney version of 1993, but it was generally considered a failure (apart from Tim Curry's delectable portrayal of the scheming Cardinal de Richelieu). Therefore, it was only a matter of time before a new film version of the story would emerge. This year, following what appears to be a return in popularity of old-fashioned costume dramas and swashbucklers, we are given "The Musketeer" (2001), directed by Peter Hyams and starring Justin Chambers in the title role, D'Artagnan.
The story is set in or around 1611 (fourteen years before the beginning of the novel). France is on the brink of war with Spain and England, while Louis XIII is on the throne of France. However, he is a weak king, and the real power rests in the hands of the Clergy. Over the years, the leader of the Catholic Church in France, the Cardinal de Richelieu, would increase his own power, would organize his own troops, and would end up manipulating the King himself. At the start of the film, the young D'Artagnan, not more than ten years old, is being taught the art of the sword by his father, an ex-musketeer who had to resign due to injury. While the family is having a meagre dinner, the evil Febre (Tim Roth), a henchman for the Cardinal de Richelieu (which is an anachronism, as Richelieu became a Cardinal only in 1622 and obtained influence chiefly after 1624), shows up and asks that the taxes for the Church -- going in fact to finance Richelieu's own army -- be paid. D'Artagnan's father refuses, and Febre slays him and his wife. The young D'Artagnan then picks up a sword, and strike Febre in the face. Febre and his men, inexplicably, leave without killing the youngster. D'Artagnan is then taken in charge by a relative, Planchet (Jean-Pierre Castaldi), who continues the development of the child's fighting skills.
Fourteen years later (although by the looks of Febre and Planchet you wouldn't guess so), D'Artagnan and Planchet leave for Paris, where the former expects to become a musketeer. However, some time earlier, Febre (who had lost an eye in the encounter with D'Artagnan fourteen years before) and his men had attacked an envoy from the Court of Spain who had diplomatic immunity, killed all witnesses, and left behind a musketeer's tunic, to put the blame on the King's only loyal army. As a result, all musketeers were suspended from active duty. Expecting to find the captain of the musketeers, Monsieur de Tréville, D'Artagnan learns from musketeers Porthos and Aramis that Tréville is being held prisoner by the Cardinal's men. Of course, they set out to rescue him.
After this heroic rescue takes in a coach going at such a slow pace that the Cardinal's men, or even a horde of one-legged pirates, could easily have caught up with them, D'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis, and Planchet attempt to protect the King from an attack by the crowd during a banquet where the guest of honour is the influential English statesman, the Duke of Buckingham, who can improve the relations between France and England. When the populace invades the place, King Louis XIII, his wife, Spanish-born Queen Anne of Austria (Catherine Deneuve), Buckingham (Jeremy Clyde), and the musketeers escape through the sewers.
In the meantime, D'Artagnan had met Francesca Bonacieux (Constance in the original novel) (Mena Suvari), the daughter of an innkeeper, with whom he naturally falls in love. She also happened to be very close to the Queen, and when the latter must escape to seek Buckingham (with whom she has a secret relationship), she asks Francesca, along with D'Artagnan and Planchet, to escort her. Along the way, they are of course ambushed, but manage to escape. Eventually, however, the Queen and Francesca are later captured by -- who else? -- Febre, who also forces the Queen to write a letter to Buckingham to lure him into a trap, at the castle where. But even the Cardinal grows weary of his henchman, and the bold musketeers come, once more, to the rescue, riding while facing cannon shots from the castle. The film finally ends with the usual heavy dose of explosives, and with D'Artagnan killing Febre.
Since this film is based on a French novel, it would be fitting to use a few French words to describe this picture: cliché and déjà vu. The film starts on a vengeance theme: D'Artagnan must avenge his parents' death. If you need other films to follow a similar vengeance theme, just plop "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" (1991), "Braveheart" (1995), "The Mask of Zorro" (1998), or "Gladiator" (2000) into your DVD player to have previous examples of this road too much travelled by, in costume dramas such as those mentioned above as well as in nearly every other type of movie out there. It is also trendy to have villains all dressed in black -- a trend going back to western films of the golden era -- with dark hair and, inevitably, a beard. D'Artagnan's father is not killed in the novel; the incident was made up in the film to increase the antagonism between the musketeer and Febre, but this new element perpetuates a pattern to which audiences have been overexposed.
Beneath the obvious additions, such as D'Artagnan's father's murder, the essence, if not the letter, of the original Dumas book can be seen. Even though some key episodes from the novel are absent from the film, most noticeably the quest to retrieve the twelve diamond tags given by the Queen to Buckingham when the King of France, suspecting a relationship between the two, demands, at Richelieu's suggestion, that she wears them in an upcoming ball, there seems to be an attempt to include various elements from the book into the film. Unfortunately, the final plot is distant from the source at best or completely invented at worst.
Consider, for example, this: The main villain in the book was a woman, Milady de Winter, working with the Cardinal. It was at her whim that Buckingham ended up assassinated in the novel. In this film, Buckingham is never murdered, as the ambush is prevented by the timely intervention of the musketeers. And in the book, Constance Bonacieux is also bumped off by Milady. Not in the film. Although Lady de Winter is not present in the film, her character was obviously transformed into Febre, the villain who gradually loses support from everyone. As well, Planchet, D'Artagnan's foster parent, was originally his servant.
The plot, in spite of the original source's splendid sense of adventure, lacks overall cohesion (although it gets slightly better towards the end) and fails to create interest. The whole comes off as episodic, and each episode seems to be of little consequence on the others. To have read the book may help, but to such little extent that the film's plot holes cannot be redeemed, even with the best knowledge on a topic that is as well known as the sinking of the Titanic. This film is way under the two hour length mark, but the screenplay by Gene Quintano tries to incorporate too much of three elements than the movie's length can allow: too many action scenes, too much romance, and too much humour. "The Three Musketeers" is a voluminous novel, and there is no way the entire plot of the book can be crammed into slightly over ninety minutes of footage. There is no epic sense in the film until the last fifteen minutes, when the musketeers come to rescue the Queen and Francesca, held prisoners in a castle. The rest of the film oscillates between the romance between D'Artagnan and Francesca, the various fights in which our valiant musketeers get involved, and attempts at humorous repartees that sound more silly than witty, and definitely out of place. The most annoying character in the latter respect has to be Planchet, who was meant to be D'Artagnan's sidekick for most of the film (with Porthos as an occasional replacement). The humour is sometimes effective, such as in the scene in the palace's kitchen before the banquet disruption, but most of it falls flat, and the laughs coming from the audience probably resulted from thoughts of "how stupid this is" more than anything else.
The romance was obviously mandatory to sell the film, to appeal to the usual teenage demographics, but as I am a reviewer who has seen -- and can appreciate -- swashbuckler films, this romance is pushed too far for the film's own sake. Sure, the swashbuckler genre must include some damsel in distress waiting to be rescued, and some love interest must develop along the way, but the swashbuckler genre is by definition the epitome of romance. It is not a place to include jokes that lean towards the sexual, or some cheesy romance which never works in real life, as this film does way too often, unless it is a parody of swashbucklers. The swashbuckler includes a grown-up, romantic, almost platonic, relationship, not some teenage sexual fantasy, as in this film, as the casting of Mena Suvari suggests.
The title, "The Musketeer", was appropriately chosen, as it is more of an individual quest for revenge than a collective effort to save France that we are being offered here, although the film tries hard -- without much success -- to convince us that Febre's actions place all of France at risk. After all, Richelieu eventually turns against his henchman, and it would have been easy for the Cardinal to crush him with his impressive personal guard. But no, D'Artagnan is the only one who can do it. And he mostly does it alone until the final rescue: the other musketeers are absent from half of the film, and when they indeed are on screen, they are limited to a few lines of inept dialogue. No sense of camaraderie, or of the sharing of adventure here: just one lone musketeer trying to avenge the death of his parents, and if he ends up saving France in the process, so be it. The film seems to be going nowhere, attempting to hide its emptiness behind special effects and action scenes -- as is unfortunately often the case these days.
The action sequences are, for the most part, well done, choreographed by Hong Kong's Xin Xin Xiong. However, some of the fights are too elaborate to be entirely believable, and this only gets worse towards the end. The sword fights are nicely staged (but less than nicely photographed), the best being in my opinion the one between D'Artagnan and one of Febre's men on the top of a coach. But in the final rescue, we see our hero shooting a grapple up the castle's tower to rescue the Queen. Of course, with the firearms of the early seventeenth century, the whole thing would have blown up in his face instead of generating the expected result, but heck, this is a movie, isn't it? Following this, our gallant hero finds himself fighting foes holding on other ropes against the wall of the tower. He is victorious, and he ends up fighting Febre in a room with a high ceiling, jumping from ladder to ladder, and of course winning. When Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, two excellent swashbuckling actors at their peak in the thirties and forties, engaged in a duel, the final result appeared to be believable -- it could have happened. Here, the action scenes are too fast-paced, too incredible for a film which -- on the surface, what lies beneath it is mush -- attempts to be realistic. You do not expect anyone to have fought this way in early seventeenth-century France. This is no doubt due to the choreographer's Asian origin, as the influence of martial arts on the type of swordplay is conspicuous.
The camera work, shaky more often than not during action sequences, by director Peter Hyams, who was also the director of photography, makes the action sometimes difficult to follow, and in the rest of the film, the direction lacks style, mixing close-ups with ensemble shots, jumping from one to the other for no reason. As far as acting is concerned, Justin Chambers is doing a passable job as D'Artagnan, but he is by no means exceptional. Mena Suvari is just there, doing not much more than that. How Catherine Deneuve, here playing Queen Anne, got involved in this production is anyone's guess, but this should be an embarrassment to her rather than an achievement to be proud of. Although she is the most prestigious name in this film, she is in fact given very little to do. Tim Roth is doing fine as the villainous Febre, but he is merely repeating the type of role that gave him a career. One of the few points up in this production is the heroic -- unfortunately too heroic at times -- score by David Arnold, which sometimes becomes too solemn regarding what is happening on the screen.Throughout the last decade, Robin Hood was brought back to the large screen in a large-budget production. So was Zorro, and the three musketeers. The swashbuckler genre, it seems, never died. But watching this production, one could wish it had.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=5513&reviewer=287
originally posted: 01/02/02 16:08:05