Archive for Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Low sword count

(PG-13) **

January 23, 2002

Adaptations of Alexandre Dumas' novels pop up on movie screens with the regularity of seasonal foliage. With their combinations of adventure, romance and scenic locales, it's a safe bet the 19thcentury writer could be on the A-list for some time to come. Sadly, many of the recent takes on his books (such as the Leonardo DiCaprio version of "The Man in the Iron Mask" and last fall's "TheMusketeer") slice through the material with dull blades.

Director Kevin Reynold's new reworking of Dumas' perennial favorite "The Count of Monte Cristo" is a cut above these adaptations, and even above his own turkeys "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and

"Waterworld." Sure, that's not saying much. Fortunately, Dumas' setup is just about foolproof, and steely-eyed Jim Caviezel ("Frequency") is suitably driven as Edmund Dantes, an amiable fellow with regrettable choices in friends and associates.

His shipmate Danglars (Albie Woodington) is miffed about missing out on a promotion that Edmund received, and his buddy Fernand Mandego

(Guy Pearce) has the hots for Edmund's fianc Mercedes (Polish-born actress Dagmara Dominczyk). The two team up with a corrupt judge (James Frain) to send Edmund to prison. Edmund has been unknowingly carrying a dangerous letter from the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte, and the information in the document is enough to keep him behind bars indefinitely.

While stuck in the big house, Edmund encounters an aging priest (Richard Harris) with a Quixotic escape plan. The old man teaches him how to read, fence and locate a remote island with untold riches. The final lesson proves useful when Edmund designs an exit strategy that works. Armed with enough money for several kings' ransoms and a new identity, Edmund prepares to return the favor to those who wronged him.

This inherently gripping quest would prove more compelling if the chief antagonist was more intimidating and convincing. Curiously, Pearce, who was terrific in "Memento" and "L.A. Confidential," gives a performance of such broad strokes that it's the acting equivalent of abstract painting. Pearce's Mondego is obvious and blunt to the point of dullness in his villainy.

When Mondego tells Mercedes of the prolific infidelities he's committed since he stole her away as his bride, it's difficult to believe him. He lacks the requisite deceptive charm to make such seductions possible. Unless a steady pattern of furiously rolling eyes, waving arms and continuous gloating has aphrodisiac or immobilizing powers, he'll be unable to woo or harm anyone.

Caviezel, on the other hand, comes across as both na enough in the early portions of the film to get into trouble and determined enough later to vanquish anyone who crosses him. In order to counterbalance him, a dangerous villain and a heroine with a siren call are necessary. Dominczyk's pretty but personality-free turn as Mercedes is not the stuff of lifetime obsession. It also doesn't help that as

Edmund's sidekick, Luis Guzm("Traffic") comes across as far too contemporary and American to pass as a 19th century Spanish pirate.

Thankfully, the script and the casting missteps do little to mar the locations. Filmed in Malta and Ireland, the production is so gorgeous that its thinly developed characters seem a less-than-fatal consequence. Maybe Reynolds was so taken by the landscape that he ignored the so-so swordplay and pedestrian action scenes.

Mark Twain once defined a "classic" as "a book which people praise and don't read." If adaptations like this one keep falling short of potential, these films are deservedly doomed to "classic" status themselves.

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