Count of Monte Cristo, The

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 01/25/02 12:37:23

"Count On The First Terrific Film of 2002"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When William Sadler’s semi-literate prisoner picks up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo for the new library in The Shawshank Redemption, he looks at the author’s name and says “Alex-an-dre Dumb-Ass”. Of course, its actually Alexandre Dumas, but when a cinematic trailblaze of his works in recent years come down to “The Three Musketeers” (1993), “The Man In The Iron Mask” (1998) and “The Musketeer” (2001), you can understand how one can make such an error in pronunciation. With the stench of that last title still being fumigated from movie theaters (plus a 30-mile radius around them) and a three-month push to the dumping ground of late January, Kevin Reynolds’ latest adaptation of a Dumas classic seemed ready to face the same predicament as its titular character. But the best revenge may just be living well because this film is far likened to a treasure than a lengthy jail sentence.

This is the 18th attempt in either film or television form to realize Dumas’ vision and it may be as faithful as you can get in just over two hours. Edmond Dantes (James Caviezel) and Fernand Mondego (Guy Pierce) are friends despite coming from different collared backgrounds. In an effort to save their captain’s life, they are forced to seek medical attention off the coast of Elba, where Napoleon Bonaparte just happens to be spending the rest of his days. For the use of his personal doctor, Napoleon entrusts a letter to Edmond to deliver back home. Mondego then feels slighted that his friend has kept him out of this particular loop.

With the prospect of promotion and the love of his beautiful fiance, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) in his life, Edmond is then the subject of betrayal on charges of treason. Sentenced to a new life of suffering in prison complete with anniversary beatings at the hands of sadistic prison warden Dorleac (the usually sadistic Michael Wincott), hope is all but lost for Dantes. Then, almost miraculously, Faria (Richard Harris), a fellow prisoner busts through the floor to his cell and believes he can find the path to freedom. In exchange for Dantes’ help, he will give him a better education than you’ll find in any public school these days and the directions to Napoleon’s hidden treasure, just a few steps on the path of revenge to the men who wronged him.

This setup, as already read by millions and seen by even more in the film’s previews, could have easily been put on high-speed dub to make way for what lesser filmmakers would have believed audiences were most interested in – The Revenge. But director Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) nicely lets things unfold at a steady pace so we can understand and appreciate all of the characters and their motivations. It’s great to finally see a climactic battle that may not be all flashy Crouching Tiger, but becomes more thrilling because we understand what that fight means to both of the combatants making it all the more exciting.

I was thoroughly (and surprisingly) entertained by every minute of The Count of Monte Cristo. My skepticism had reached a degree that not even John Nash or Will Hunting would be able to decipher, knowing that James (sometimes Jim) Caviezel was cast as the hero. Anyone familiar with my reviews, know my opinion on his acting prowess ranks somewhere between a switched-off replicant and a pet rock that’s been crushed. Early on in Monte Cristo, Caviezel didn’t do much to disprove my thoughts as he still has his deer-in-the-headlights moments (and I mean when an actual deer is IN your headlights after you hit him). However, Caviezel began to surprise me as his character evolved from the kind of gee whiz/duh mentality (that normally perfectly suits him) to the charming Count with an effortless quality that only really good actors can accomplish.

And speaking of good actors, matching Caviezel as the perfect counterpoint is Guy Pierce (quickly becoming one of my favorite actors). After roles in L.A. Confidential and last year’s best film, Memento, Pierce’s star will continue to rise to the level of a film lover’s household name with his villainous turn (and the upcoming remake of The Time Machine in March). Pierce plays the perfect scoundrel here, a man already born into wealth, who would rob, cheat and kill to get more behind your back and to your face and then still not know how to handle his success. All of this perfectly summed up in one simple line to Edmond when he says, “I’m not supposed to want to be you.” Pierce’s performance will recall Tim Roth’s lechery in another period revenge tale and, “Braveheart” notwithstanding, The Count of Monte Cristo may be the best film of its kind to come along since “Rob Roy” in 1995.

The ads may tell you to “prepare for adventure and count on revenge”, just don’t be fooled into expecting action and swordfights aplenty. There is excitement and several worthy crowd-pleasing moments, but they are the result of a long and great journey and not by expensive special effects and a cheap applause sign. Caviezel and Pierce make great opponents and are aided by a cavalcade of strong support, not the least of which from James Frain (as a shady politician) and Luis Guzman (marvelous as Edmond’s loyal sidekick). This gets 2002 its first great film of the year, so even if Sadler wasn’t correct in the vocalizing of Dumas’ name, Tim Robbins was right when he simply replied, “You’ll like it, it’s about a prison break.”

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