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THE MUSKETEER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Justin Chambers, Mena Suvari, Tim Roth, Stephen Rea, Catherine Deneuve
Director:  Peter Hyams
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  105 Minutes
Release Date:  February 26, 2002

“How can I phrase this…WITHOUT killing anyone, make the king a fool in Buckingham’s eyes.”

“What if I absolutely MUST kill someone?”

“Well…if you must, you must…”

Film **

I’ve all but given up hope of ever seeing a faithful, and therefore good, screen adaptation of my favorite book from childhood, The Three Musketeers.  It captured my young imagination like nothing else with its bold tales of swashbuckling heroics, romance, honor and sacrifice.  It’s always been the perfect material for a movie, which is why it’s been made into more films that can be counted from the silent era on…yet none of them have ever had enough faith in the source material to really make it work.

If nothing else, at least Peter Hyams’ The Musketeer proclaims it straight up in the trailer.  “Completely re-imagined,” the ad states…is it a boast, or an apology?  Did screenwriter Gene Quintano actually feel he could improve upon the original?  Maybe not…but even if we’re left without the hearty braggadocio of Alexandre Dumas’ prose, at least we get lines like, “I will slice off your balls and feed them to the pigs.”

The point of this film is not to honor the literature of Dumas, naturally, but to re-invent the swordfight sequence.  Correction…not to re-invent, because most of the world has already seen this style in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and die-hard fans of classic Hong Kong swordplay pictures have seen much more…but to instill the Eastern traditions of action into an essentially Western drama.

But anachronisms can be fun (see:  A Knight’s Tale), and this picture makes up for its weak re-telling of a classic tale with plenty of rousing action sequences.  The fight choreographer, as proclaimed over and over again in the disc’s special features, is Xin Xin Xiong.  Funny, the DVD never bothers to mention who he is, or why the average moviegoer will care, but no matter…Asian fans will recognize the name and the stylings.  Those who have seen Once Upon a Time in China will even recognize the climax atop tall swinging ladders, which crosses the line from homage to indulgent rip-off.

Each time I watch a new movie incarnation of The Three Musketeers, I play a little game with myself…I count how many minutes it takes for me to see something on the screen that actually took place in the book (apart from the obvious plot-jumper of D’Artagnan going off to join the Musketeers).  In this picture, I never stopped counting.  Nothing matched.  The closest it came was D’Artagnan serving as a bodyguard seeing to the safe arrival of the queen’s message to Buckingham, but here, he protects the queen herself, and not her servants.  I’m guessing this was done to give the alluring Catherine Deneuve more screen time.  If so, no complaints from me.

Justin Chambers takes on the pivotal role of D’Artagnan, and my sole qualm is the same one I have for just about every movie D’Artagnan…he’s too American.  I don’t blame him; I blame the filmmakers, who always seem to think that this French hero has to be as American as possible for the audience to buy into him.  Apart from that, he plays the role much better than a lot of others I’ve seen over the years.  He has the right look, the right demeanor, and most importantly, he can doff a humorous line with just the right delivery, never sounding like a modern era action hero smartass. 

The cast is an impressive collection, including Tim Roth as the menacing villain Febre.  “Have you no mercy in your heart?” he is asked at one point.  “No mercy,” he replies.  “No heart.”  Stephen Rea takes a miraculously different approach to Cardinal Richelieu, forgoing flamboyant evilness for a quieter, more calculating schemer who falls a distant second to Febre in terms of both vileness and strength.  As mentioned, Ms. Deneuve is as radiant as ever, but she is actually upstaged by Mena Suvari here, who is the absolute embodiment of a classic period beauty. 

Of course, this leads to another typical Musketeer problem…accent salad.  Only the army of bad guys speak French.  I suppose what they have to say just isn’t that damned important.

But the real star, for better or for worse, is the action.  There are many varying adjectives I could use to describe them, ranging from “exhilarating” to “absurd”.  Our hero even wedges himself between ceiling beams and dodges around while horizontal to the ground as he fights three bad guys with swords.  It looked quite good, but seemed an illogical way to fight…you kind of need one of your hands if you’re going to wield a sword.  One even remarks to D’Artagnan, “Your fighting style is most unusual; where did you acquire it?”  “Here and there,” he answers.  “Perhaps there,” the fellow muses, “but certainly not here.”.  ‘Nuff said, I suppose.

I had a share of fun watching the film…I even smiled once or twice.  But one thing I’ll never understand is why filmmakers continue to use the characters from and the title of The Three Musketeers when they could change the names and more or less claim a new tale.  It seems the title still sells tickets…it’s just too bad that nobody in Hollywood realizes that the story behind the title is the real attraction.

Video ***

This could have been a 4 star offering, but like most discs that include both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, the picture suffers from the reduced space.  Mostly shot in natural light, this picture has a terrific look and feel to it, with a wide array of brightly lit colors and low light candle and fire effects to create extreme tones and images.  But in a few wide shots, compression is very evident.  Chroma noise splatters against the backgrounds like raindrops, marring what would otherwise be very striking visuals.  It isn’t overly distracting, but noticeable and frustrating.  I personally prefer separate releases for Dolby Digital and DTS soundtrack offerings for just that reason.  DTS takes up a lot of room on a DVD, and like the song says, something’s gotta give.

Audio ****

That being said, there are absolutely no complaints about the 5.1 audio offering, which is explosively dynamic and engrossing.  When the swords clash, your living room will be filled with the sounds of the action.  In this picture, there are more than just blades at work…rolling barrels, pounding cannons, thunderous hooves…these all make up the audio composition, and give all channels a rigorous workout.  The clarity is crystal, the signals are all strong and well balanced, and the low end frequencies are positively rattling…a reference quality offering from start to finish.

Features **

A surprisingly weak effort from Universal.  There is a 3 minute piece on the film’s stunts, followed by a 2 minute piece on casting Justin Chambers.  Despite 5 minutes total running time, there manages to be some repeat information from one to the next.  This is followed by printed production notes, which once again, repeats some of what we’ve just watched two times!  There is also a trailer, talent files, and some DVD ROM extras.

Summary:

“As you’ve never seen before…” the tagline brags, and you certainly haven’t…especially on the printed page.  Despite a good cast and some effectively entertaining if improbable action sequences, The Musketeer is just another tired and failed attempt to capture the swashbuckling magic of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel.  And once again, the failure comes from a lack of really trying.