“The Count of Monte Cristo” is a dazzling, old-fashioned adventure story that brings the Alexandre Dumas novel roaringly to life. For an hour or so, that is. Then it turns into dull Hollywood hokum.
It is directed by Kevin Reynolds, the man behind 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” which was similarly half-and-half, quality-wise. (Remember how great Alan Rickman was, and the sword-fighting? And remember how terrible Kevin Costner was?)
“Monte Cristo” is a grand story, and one deserving of a good Hollywood treatment. It posits that revenge is not altogether a bad thing, if it’s justified — though the film version makes sure the revengees are thoroughly despicable, too, just so there’s no ambiguity about whether the revenger has the right to punish them.
Edmund Dantes (James Caviezel, from “Frequency”) is an innocent sailor-merchant with a gorgeous fiancee Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) and a best friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce, from “Memento”). They have all three been friends since childhood, giving Fernand plenty of time to develop an unhealthy jealousy over Edmund’s good fortune in the love-interest department.
Fueled by this jealousy and aided by snively politician Villefort (James Frain), Fernand falsely accuses Edmund of treason and has him shipped off to the forbidding Cheateau D’If, whence no prisoner returns. While there, Edmund encounters Faria (Richard Harris), a priest who educates him, trains him and eventually helps him escape. Now Edmund wants revenge against all those who did him wrong.
The first half is, as mentioned, highly enjoyable, with character strokes that give it life. Edmund is too trusting and even naive. Fernand is very wealthy, yet jealous of dirt-poor Edmund’s happiness. These are interesting touches.
They are almost completely ignored in the second half.
The turning point is Edmund’s prison break. Almost immediately, he gains a sidekick, the ludicrously anachronistic Jacopo, played embarrassingly by Luis Guzman (who was so good in “Traffic”). Even aside from that, the movie descends into formulaic silliness: Apparently, if your appearance changes in no way other than growing a goatee, no one will recognize you.
It’s a mistake for Reynolds (and first-time screenwriter Jay Wolpert) to ditch the character traits established in the first hour, especially since they are replaced with nothing. As he plans his various revenges, Edmund is not vicious or calculating enough to be a creepy dark hero of vengeance, but neither is he outrageous enough to be funny. He just muddles along, his motivations unclear and his plans equally fuzzy. In prison, he seemed cynical and hardened by the experience. When he gets out, he’s just a moody guy.
And poor Fernand goes from being a complex best friend/worst enemy character to being just a plain old jerk who cheats on his wife.
Dagmara Dominczyk barely registers as Edmund’s beloved; one wonders why seeing her again was such a priority to him.
There is some fine swashbuckling action, and several moments of tension and excitement. But it is a disappointing enactment of a fine story, and it feels far longer than it is. (A friend of mine who loved it said he thought it was about 2 1/2 hours — over-guessing by 30 minutes.) Dumas deserves better.
C+ (; )