The passage of time and a child's viewpoint have a wonderful effect on making movies from long ago seem like classics. As long as the film seemed entertaining way back when, the intervening years and non-critical judgment of the time translates into memories of a "great" film.
For me, one of those pictures was "The Three Musketeers" from 1974 that featured an all-star cast and what seemed like some terrific action and stunts. Having not seen the film since then, I can't attest about whether it truly was good or really was a piece of junk, and to preserve fond childhood memories, that lack of distinction is fine with me.
Perhaps decades from now, some film critic will have similar memories of this week's release of "The Musketeer." It certainly may appeal to young kids - and future movie reviewers - and their interpretation of what's great cinema, what with all of the swashbuckling-based fighting and action. Adults, on the other hand, may not have the same reaction. Why is that, you may ask?
Well, for starters, the story isn't particularly fresh and I'm not referring to the fact that it's based on Alexandre Dumas' mid 19th century novel. Instead, it's that the story - above and beyond director Richard Lester's mid '70s version - has been told a gazillion times on both TV and in the movies, most recently in 1993's "The Three Musketeers" with Chris O'Donnell in the D'Artagnan role and 1998's "The Man in the Iron Mask" with its middle-aged, "Grumpy Old Musketeers" take on the tale.
Thus, one should have a good reason to revisit the story, especially since contemporary audiences don't exactly appear to be knocking down the doors to see 17th century swashbuckling excitement. According to director Peter Hyams ("End of Days," "2010"), his was to add Hong Kong action flair to the already present and traditional swordplay action, thus hopefully intensifying the material.
While my memory of the earlier versions seems to recall enough action for the genre, one could ask what's wrong with instilling a foreign sensibility into a period piece. Well, imagine "Gone With the Wind" being remade just so that it could be presented in the 1970s era, foundation rattling Sensurround sound. The result here isn't quite as absurd or pointless as that, but it doesn't seem like much more than a gimmick designed to capitalize on the martial arts inspired success of films such as "The Matrix," "Charlie's Angels" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Although moderately impressive at times, the effect isn't much more than the equivalent of adding fuel to the fire since the action is already a given. A few stunts are fun, but much of what's present - courtesy of Hong Kong action choreographer Xin-Xin Xiong ("Time and Tide," "Double Team") - comes off as generally weak, Jackie Chan type material.
Beyond not being as imaginative - although a complicated, multi-ladder fight scene earns points for trying - the material isn't as infectiously fun. Not helping matters is the fact that the gravity-defying moments - while not of the Peter Pan variety from "Crouching Tiger" - do have the same effect of ruining the film's already strained sense of realism.
That leaves the basic story as the last measure to keep us engaged. While Hyams and screenwriter Gene Quintano ("Sudden Death," "For Better or Worse") have made some character and story changes from Dumas' original work, it's still pretty much the same old Musketeer story. Surprisingly, however, the whole corruption and revenge matters come off as rather mundane, lacking the frenetic fury of the accompanying action to engage us on an intellectual or emotional level.
Of course, it doesn't help matters that the readily apparent and often awful editing and stilted dialogue will likely serve as constant distractions from the basic story. While Nick Moran ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "New Blood"), Steve Speirs ("Topsy-Turvy," "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace") and Jan Gregor Kremp ("Russenhure," "Halt Mich Fest") simultaneously manage to be both credible and unmemorable in their roles as longstanding Musketeers Aramis, Porthos and Athos respectively, the heart of the story - indeed what makes or breaks any such version - lies with the character of D'Artagnan.
Calling upon those questionable memory cells, I recall Michael York ("Logan's Run") seemingly perfectly fitting the bill as the handsome and dashing young rogue. While Justin Chambers ("The Wedding Planner," "Liberty Heights") has the looks and physique for the role, he just doesn't bring enough to it to make the character leap from the screen and into our hearts and imagination.
He isn't helped by the lack of screen time for the chemistry between his character and the resourceful chambermaid played by Mena Suvari ("American Beauty," the "American Pie" films) to build, or the fact that their early interaction is comprised of him doing the sort of bumbling and bashful routine that we've seen in countless previous films.
Catherine Deneuve ("Dancer in the Dark," "Indochine") and Stephen Rea ("Guinevere," "The Crying Game") are solid in their roles as the Queen and nefarious Cardinal respectfully, but it's Tim Roth ("Planet of the Apes," "Rob Roy") who has the most fun playing the over the top, out of control villain. While not quite of the Hans "Die Hard" Gruber caliber, the character is certainly filled with the most vigor and clearly is what keeps the film moving along.
Despite some new stunt work and Hong Kong action flair added to the fight choreography, there's not much reason for this latest version of Dumas' work to exist. While it's a few hours of mindless entertainment, it's undeniably lacking in the pizzazz and necessary fun to make it stand out among the crowd of previous such films. Moderately decent, but certainly unremarkable and unmemorable, "The Musketeer" rates as a 4 out of 10.