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Sunday, April 17, 2011

THE 4 MUSKETEERS -- movie review by porfle

I've never read Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers", but through the years have become familiar with the storyline thanks to various other filmizations and, yes, the "Classics Illustrated" comic book version.  So I know enough to recognize some rather drastic liberties the 2005 Canada/France/UK/Czech Republic production THE 4 MUSKETEERS takes with the story, not the least of which being the fact that Milady de Winter is presented as not just evil, but a full-fledged diabolical sorceress in league with Satan.  I guess if you're going to make alterations to the original story you might as well go all out.

The basics: a young commoner named D'Artagnan travels to Paris to become a musketeer.  He manages to offend three different musketeers  and is challenged to separate duels by all three, but when the cardinal's guards arrive and try to arrest them for dueling, the four join forces against them and become friends.  Subsequently, they end up trying to foil a plot by Le cardinal de Richelieu to discredit the Queen with the help of the evil Milady de Winter.  Dark intrigue and lots of swashbuckling ensue.

The initial meeting of D'Artagnan and the three musketeers isn't handled as well in this version as I've seen it done before, but it's there.  The affair of the Queen's necklace with the twelve diamond tags is pretty nicely portrayed, and other original story elements appear frequently in one form or another.  It seems a strange decision, though, to turn this into a supernatural thriller with sorcery, pacts with the Devil, and other fantasy elements.  There's even a "wuh-oh" ending so overly-familiar to viewers these days, a jarring replacement for the rousing, triumphant fade-out one might expect.  At any rate, director-screenwriter Pierre Aknine gets points for trying something different.

Dumas' novel has been filmed numerous times dating well back into the silent era--even the Ritz Brothers took a crack at it in 1939.  Richard Lester's 1973 THE THREE MUSKETEERS is probably the best--the theater audience I saw it with at the time stood up and applauded at the end, then cheered enthusiastically when a preview of the follow-up, THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, came onscreen. 

I don't think audiences would cheer this version, though.  Anyway, you might have to wake them up first--it's three hours long, and there's a heck of a lot more yakkity-yak than swordplay going on, at least when the characters aren't running, riding, or rowing from one location to the next.  The bonafide swordfights one expects from a movie like this are few and far between, and these are marred by bad editing and camerawork which make it difficult to evaluate the merits of the fight choreography.  There's even some iffy wirework and wince-inducing CGI involved to remind us that we're watching an action film made in an era in which such ingredients seem to be required by law.

Sumptuous production design and photography are highlights, as are some noteworthy performances.  Emmanuelle Béart (MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE), easily the stand-out of the cast, is fascinating to watch as Milady de Winter, and Stefania Rocca (THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY) makes a lovely and dignified young Queen Anne D'Autriche.  As Le cardinal de Richelieu, Tchéky Karyo ("Serge", THE CORE) is adequate but not nearly as impressive a presence as Charlton Heston was in the Lester version.  As for the others, some really bad dubbing makes it difficult to evaluate their performances. 

Most of the focus is on D'Artagnan (the original title is, in fact, D'ARTAGNAN ET LES TROIS MOUSQUETAIRES), and Vincent Elbaz, who looks like a cross between a hair-metal guitarist and a male model with a touch of "Weird Al" Yankovic thrown in, gives the character a strange mix of noble valor and goofiness that gets easier to take as the movie progresses.  The actors portraying the three musketeers themselves capably fulfill what the script requires them to do, which isn't nearly enough. 

Their characters are given short shrift here--they're like supporting players in their own story.  Aramis (Grégori Derangère) is an amourous rogue, Athos (Heino Ferch) is haunted by his past association with Milady de Winter, and Porthos (Grégory Gadebois)  is, well, portly.  These bare-bones traits are just about all we're given to identify them with, which makes those frequent shots of the four musketeers riding together with triumphant music blaring in the background feel somewhat hollow.

The closing sequence is drawn out longer than necessary, and the movie ends on a downer.  Along the way, if you can make it through all the talky scenes, there's some pretty exciting action, especially when Emmanuelle Béart's Milady de Winter goes into full-out attack mode (she's definitely the best thing about this version).  The movie looks great but the direction and camerawork range from stunning to irritatingly offhand, and three of the main characters--that is, any of THE 4 MUSKETEERS who aren't D'Artagnan--are so disappointingly underdeveloped that they might have been played by the Ritz Brothers without affecting anything much. 

Although sparsely entertaining during parts of its three-hour running time, it's not a movie I'd enthusiastically recommend you go out and rent--at least not if the much-superior (and much more fun) Richard Lester version is sitting next to it on the rack.

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