by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I watched a movie last night: The Musketeer, a 2001 offtake of the classic Alexander Dumas père novel The Three Musketeers (which sounds like a disgraceful instance of 17th century downsizing!) written by Gene Quintano and directed by Peter Hyams — who probably has a better reputation as a director than he deserves (he did the 1984 sequel to 2001, 2010) — which at least two commentators on imdb.com regarded as an attempt to remodel The Three Musketeers into a martial-arts story. The version of the plot presented here opens with D’Artagnan as a child whose parents are abruptly murdered by Febre, the Man in Black (Tim Roth, stealing the acting honors with a superb performance as a psychopathic villain), an agent of Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea from The Crying Game) who’s hoping to use him to keep tensions high between Britain, France and Spain.
The film then flashes forward 12 years and D’Artagnan (Justin Chambers) is a young man traveling with his guardian, Planchet (Jean-Pierre Castaldi), who raised him after his parents were killed. He wants to follow his father into service as one of the Royal Musketeers, only the Musketeers have been outlawed and most of them imprisoned by order of Richelieu, who’s been able to take advantage of the weak King Louis XIII (Daniel Mesguich) to have the Musketeers disbanded and his own Cardinal’s Guards substituted as the royal security force. Among the few who have stayed out of prison are Athos (Jan Gregor Kremp), Porthos (Steve Speirs) and Aramis (Nick Moran), who meet up with Our Hero in a disreputable tavern and are distinctly unimpressed until they pick a fight with him in a wine cellar, and either Justin Chambers or (more likely) his stunt double (indeed, I had the feeling throughout the movie that this time they hired the stunt double first and then looked for an actor who resembled him instead of the other way around!) does a spectacular performance, doing dancer’s splits across the rolling wine barrels and turning in a splendid action scene hampered only by past-is-brown conventions.
According to his entry on imdb.com, Peter Hyams likes to shoot scenes — even nighttime scenes and interiors — with as little artificial light as possible, thereby frequently getting accused of making his films so dark you can’t tell what’s going on. Here there are some ravishingly beautiful exteriors that look like French academic paintings of the period, as well as a couple of shots of D’Artagnan riding his horse against a flaming orange sunset that look straight out of Gone With the Wind or Duel in the Sun — but most of the interiors, including the big action scenes, are insufferably dark and it’s not always easy to tell what’s supposed to be going on in them.
Hyams doesn’t have the sense of pace a story like this needs to work — it sort of plods along between the action set-pieces (becoming a bit more “action porn” than usual for the genre!) and one misses the relentless energy brought to the earlier versions of Dumas’ tale — but the movie is fun almost in spite of itself, thanks partly to the finely honed performances of Tim Roth and Catherine Deneuve, who plays Louis’ Queen and is top-billed (in fact the top two slots on the cast list go to women, Deneuve and Mena Suvari as the hero’s love interest, Francesca Bonacieux, daughter of one of the Queen’s maids, an oddity in a male-oriented action film) and gets to play a quite active (and activist) role, making up for her husband’s weakness in her determination to foil Richelieu’s schemes to gain control of France and get Febre either arrested or killed. (Febre, intriguingly, wears a patch over his left eye through most of the film — not because he’s lost the eye but because D’Artagnan’s father scarred him there while trying to defend himself.)
Roth’s cool villainy is a highlight of the film; in one sequence he and his men massacre a coach full of diplomats from the Spanish court, and when Richelieu upbraids him — saying he only wanted to scare the Spaniards, not kill them — Febre responds with a heartless indifference that makes it clear he’s a psychopathic monster whom Richelieu will not be able to control. Febre also burns down an entire library full of laboriously copied manuscripts to get information from the scribe (whom he leaves to die in the blaze) and threatens to kill a child if Francesca won’t tell him where the Queen is hiding — and at one point he calmly takes out a gun and shoots Francesca (this is one Three Musketeers movie that actually acknowledge where the Musketeers got their name and that handguns, as well as artillery, existed in the 17th century — though Hyams makes the same mistake James Whale did in another Dumas-derived movie, The Man in the Iron Mask, of having the guns fired much more rapidly than they could have been at the time, when they had to be carefully and laboriously reloaded after each shot).
Naturally, we expect this movie to end with a climactic swordfight between D’Artagnan and Febre, and we’re not disappointed — indeed, the final battle takes place largely in a basement with row upon row of ladders, some of which tip picturesquely and raise or lower one of the combatants into or out of the other’s range; one ladder even becomes a see-saw and the two men fence while attempting to keep their balance on this gigantic teeter-totter, a scene that reminded me of the final fight between Robert Taylor and Duncan Lamont in the 1955 film Quentin Durward (the climax in that took place with the combatants swinging on bell ropes — and clinging for dear life to them, since below them was a blazing fire that would instantly incinerate either of them if they let go — having to carry on like twin Tarzans and do a swordfight while leaping from one rope to another!) and Charles of some of the more gravity-defying feats in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Musketeer is the sort of film that could have been a good deal better — it almost totally misses the insouciance of the best movies of the Dumas story and characters — but it’s still a lot of fun. Interestingly, the credits indicate it was a co-production of Universal and Miramax — back in the bright days before Miramax got bought out by Disney and became nothing more than a stepchild in the Disney machine!