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I was pleasantly surprised by The Count of Monte Cristo. It's director Kevin Reynolds's (Waterworld, Robin Hood) strongest adventure film yet. While it drastically rewrites the classic story by Alexander Dumas, it focuses boldly on questions of God's justice and the ethics of revenge.
James Caviezel (Frequency) stars as Edmond Dantés, a traveling Frenchman who agrees to deliver a letter when he arrives back in Paris. Fortunately, he is stopped before he delivers it, and a secret military communiqué from Napoleon is thwarted. But the letter threatens to expose one politician's dark secret, and the innocent Dantés is quickly condemned and silenced about the matter. He suffers under a cruel prison warden (Michael Wincott). But a God-fearing old prisoner (Richard Harris) educates Dantés behind the warden's back, preparing him for a valiant escape and a chance for fame and fortune. Dantés is more interested in revenge.
2002 is off to a good start with this surprisingly solid, old-fashioned adventure flick, which reminded me (and others) of The Mask of Zorro. The script is flawed and anachronistic, but the performances won me over. Caviezel is especially striking; he convincingly carries his character through almost a decade of trials and transformations, from a meek and naïve youngster to a bold, confident, and crafty Count. Lacking big-budget special effects, the film draws energy from Dantes's careful plotting and impressive swordsmanship. But the film's emphasis on the hero's moral quandary becomes its greatest distinction. The formulaic finale is a bit of a cop-out, but Dantes's twinge of conscience is a strength rarely found in big screen heroes.
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "These days, action films rely far too heavily on gaudy special effects and dopey catch phrases, and far too little on intelligent scripts and interesting characters. Monte Cristo succeeds because it ultimately isn't about action. It's about people. It's about issues that transcend a high-speed chase or an explosion."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic writes, "Reynolds honors his source material by seamlessly interweaving themes of jealousy, betrayal, and vengeance transformed into mercy and redemption in an opulent production, although it underplays the main character's spiritual struggles with God."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) compares Dantes's trials to the sufferings of Job: "Woven into this classic story of revenge is the spiritual journey of a man who, due to the extreme injustice visited upon him, questions everything he once held to be true regarding God."
Ted Baehr and Lisa Rice (Movieguide) report, "The filmmakers are to be commended for clearly presenting a powerful tale, with a strong Christian perspective." They add, however, that the "Christian worldview [is] somewhat confused by a heightened emphasis on vengeance."
Not so thrilled, Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth) protests that "18th-century films use modern-day dialogue as toss-away expressions. Monte Cristo has two good actors going for it and that's about it."
But Steven J. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Monte Cristo balances its anachronistic sensibilities and over-the-top set pieces with genuine emotion and a real moral dimension—even a spiritual dimension." He concludes, "Monte Cristo is … as much fun as you're liable to have at the movies for quite some time."
Paul Bicking (Preview) determines that "Teens and older can enjoy this adventurous tale" without elaborating on why, except to say that it is "virtually free of coarse language."
Mainstream critics are doing some dueling of their own. Roger Ebert declares that it is "so traditional it almost feels new … the kind of movie that used to be right at home at the Saturday matinee, and it still is. We can imagine Errol Flynn in this material, although Caviezel and Pearce bring more conviction to it."
But Jeff Stark (Salon.com) gripes, "it commits the gravest sin against great literature—it makes it boring. Reynolds has thrown out all the rich subtlety and deep irony of the novel in favor of neat resolutions."
from Film Forum, 02/21/02
The Count of Monte Cristo (Touchstone), according to promotional materials, strives to be "the first major swashbuckling movie of the new millennium." The film, based on the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas, tells the story of Edmond Dantés (Jim Caviezel), who is framed as a traitor by his duplicitous friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce). Dantés spends 13 torturous years on the island prison of Chateau d'If, learns life lessons from an imprisoned priest, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), then designs an elaborate scheme to seek revenge on Mondego and others who betrayed him. In his cell, Dantés finds a wall carving that says GOD WILL GIVE ME JUSTICE, and he deepens the carving in his years of imprisonment. Faria, the most engaging character in the film, pleads with DantÉs not to seek revenge, but to no avail. After more than two hours of new-millennium swashbuckling, the film's resolution is so abrupt that it seems like a non sequitur. The cinematography is rich, the acting is competent all around, but a nagging question remains: Why now?