The Austin Chronicle

The Count of Monte Cristo

Rated PG-13, 131 min. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Starring Guy Pearce, Jim Caviezel, Richard Harris, Dagmara Dominczyk, Luis Guzman, Michael Wincott.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 25, 2002

It's surely only a random twist of fate, but for a while during the first half of this, the umpteenth recent retooling of an Alexandre Dumas novel, Jim Caviezel, as wrongfully imprisoned hero Edmund Dantes, bears a striking resemblance to current state prisoner John Walker. The wild mane of dark hair, the tangled beard, and the cowed and fevered glare are virtually identical in both these traitors. Dantes, of course, is a fictional character and wasn't even a traitor to begin with -- that's why he's so fixated on the whole notion of revenge as redemption -- while Walker's story promises to rival Dumas' legendary plot twists even at this early stage. I mention this strange and wholly unexpected similarity between the two as a means of noting that this version of The Count of Monty Cristo is actually two, two, two films in one. Initially, director Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld) cleaves to the bone of Dumas' novel. The dashing (if common) Dantes is betrayed by his nobleman buddy Fernand Mondego (Pearce of Memento) and, amid the sort of convoluted but exhilarating plotting that made Dumas a high school favorite, finds himself banished from the arms of his fiancée Mercedes (Dominczyk) to an island prison where he eventually ends up spending 13 long years dining on rat and learning the finer points of Machiavelli from fellow layabout Richard Harris. Meanwhile, Mondego convinces Mercedes that her betrothed has been executed, marries her, has a son, kills people, develops some serious monogamy issues, and adapts a poncey accent. That's the first movie. The second begins with Dantes' escape and rebirth as the ludicrously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. With his trusty comic sidekick Luis Guzman at his side, this second film is rife with modern-day wisecracking and silly asides that border on the schticky. It's as if Reynolds couldn't decide which style of film he wanted to make, and the combination of the two makes for a jarring, if frequently entertaining, hybrid. Guzman, in particular, looks ill-suited to this sort of swashbuckling role; his work with Steven Soderbergh clings to his performance here like Day-Glo spider webs. Pearce, too, plays things broadly, although Harris' inner lunatic provides a far more interesting mentor to Dantes. Only Caviezel acquits himself admirably and with a modicum of fuss. He plays Dantes as though he were continually engaged in some inner debate on the merits of beard versus clean-shaven, with occasional forays into damp-browed brooding, and oddly enough it works. Reynolds' film, on the other hand, tends toward the schizophrenic. The action is tight and well-shot, the editing clean and full of verve, but those misplaced Guzman cracks tend to leave you feeling as though you're watching a split personality case talk to himself in a dark room. More fun than Peter Hyams' The Musketeer, and somewhat less so than The Man in the Iron Mask, this is middling Dumas all the way.

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