The Count of Monte Cristo

reviewed by Steve Sailer

UPI, January 24, 2002

 

With Best Picture hopefuls still going strong in the theatres, January is typically the month in which studios dump new movies that aren't quite bad enough to go straight to video, but aren't good enough for release any other time. That's why the solid, highly entertaining "The Count of Monte Cristo" comes as a surprise. It offers an enjoyable compromise between the good-for-you but grim prestige films, such as "Black Hawk Down" and "In the Bedroom," and the usual January schlock.

Written by Alexandre Dumas the Elder in 1844, "Monte Cristo" is one of the most popular novels of all time. It's been called an airport novel from before there were airports. Although first filmed in 1908(!), Hollywood hasn't made a big screen version since Robert Donat's in 1934. This 68-year lag seems oddly long, considering that Dumas' "Three Musketeers" has been remade twice in the last ten years alone.

The movie's plot is certainly not lacking in incident. An innocent young French sailor, Edmond Dantès (played by Jim Caviezel, who starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in "Angel Eyes"), is condemned to the dungeon of the Château D'If by the machinations of his enemies. They are lead by the son of Count Mondego (portrayed by Guy Pearce), who wants to marry Dantès' fiancé.

The movie comes to life when up through Dantès' cell floor tunnels a fellow prisoner (Richard Harris). As they dig their way out at the rate of three inches per week, this urbane priest educates the illiterate youth in the ways of the world. Finally free years later, Dantès salvages a sunken treasure, reinvents himself as the elegant but saturnine Count of Monte Cristo, and rains vengeance down upon the those who did him wrong.

The novel has been hugely influential. Obi-Wan Kenobi is an update of the naïve hero's mentor in scholarship and swordplay. And Batman, the tormented Dark Knight, owes a lot to the implacable Count of Monte Cristo.

Mark Twain even parodied it in "Huckleberry Finn." Having overdosed on Dumas, Tom Sawyer insists that the only proper way to liberate the runaway slave Jim from the flimsy shed where he's held captive is by spending months digging him out with tiny case-knives.

After "Memento," the sunken-cheeked Guy Pearce is a hot property, but here he camps it up a little too much as the drunken twit of a villain.

In contrast, although Richard Harris (who was the Emperor in "Gladiator") long ago drank away his shot at being the next Alec Guinness or Laurence Olivier, the old Irishman is wonderfully hammy as the priest.

Perhaps actors from the British Isles are so much better at the grand theatrical style than Americans because in their old class-based society, everybody - whether nobleman or yokel - went through life with an assigned role to play.

For all its delights, however, the novel is an unfilmable 1,400 pages long. The part that most people remember - the escape from prison - comprises only a small fraction.

Director Kevin Reynolds, who is making a comeback after his career was washed away by the "Waterworld" disaster, noted, "If we'd been completely faithful to the novel, we would have had a 30-hour movie."

The unlikely author of the taut screenplay is a TV game show producer named Jay Wolpert. Although this is his first script to be filmed, he does a textbook job of finding the spine of the story. Purists will lament that he tosses in a few melodramatic plot twists of his own, but, somehow, I don't think Dumas would have minded.

For example, to avoid the novel's lengthy explanation of how the evil Mondego rises from fisherman to nobleman, Wolpert simply makes him the son of a count. Then, to add his own psychological twist, Wolpert turns Pearce's Mondego and Caviezel's Dantès into boyhood best friends. This indeed makes Mondego's betrayal and Dantès' revenge more emotionally powerful.

Unfortunately, Wolpert's addition also obliterates the class tension that was the background to most 19th Century European novels: little aristocrats and little nobodies didn't grow up as best buddies.

Americans, though, don't care much about class. What interests us is race. So, the film transforms the Italians smugglers who rescue the escaped Dantès into Puerto Rican pirates. This change allows Luis Guzmán, the strikingly short and amusing character actor from "Traffic," to have a lot of fun playing the Count's ex-pirate butler.

This Caribbean connection is appropriate, because it reminds us that Dumas's paternal grandmother was a Haitian slave. In America, Dumas would have been classified as black, but in France, it never much mattered.

"Rated PG-13 for adventure violence/swordplay and some sensuality."

 

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