[Screen It]

(2002) (Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: After being wronged by his alleged best friend and serving many years in prison, a man sets out to escape and get his revenge on him and others.
It's 1814 and best friends and shipmates Edmond Dantes (JIM CAVIEZEL) and Fernand Mondego (GUY PEARCE) have arrived on the island of Elba hoping to find medical help for their ailing captain. Although their efforts are in vain, they get to meet Napoleon Bonaparte (ALEX NORTON), the exiled French Emperor who asks Edmond to deliver a confidential letter for him. Having received the former leader's help, Edmond agrees.

Once back in Marseilles, Edmond is promoted to Captain by Morrell (PATRICK GODFREY), the owner of the shipping company, a point that doesn't sit well with the first mate, Danglars (ALBIE WOODINGTON), or Fernand, who turns out to be envious of Edmond's life. That's particularly true in regards to Mercedes (DAGMARA DOMINCZYK), Edmond's beautiful girlfriend who's ready to marry him.

That never comes to fruition, however, as Fernand secretly conspires to have Edmond brought up on charges of treason based on the letter he's carrying. Arrested and taken before the local magistrate, Villefort (JAMES FRAIN), Edmond is eventually sent to the island prison of Chateau D'If, where his only contact for years is with the cruel warden, Dorleac (MICHAEL WINCOTT).

As the years pass, Edmond eventually loses all hope and faith in God. His fortunes change, however, when an older inmate and former priest, Abbe Faria (RICHARD HARRIS), accidentally tunnels into his cell. The two quickly become friends, with Edmond agreeing to help dig another tunnel in exchange for Abbe educating him in the ways of the pen and sword.

Now proficient in both, Edmond eventually escapes and sets out to enact his revenge on those who wronged him. Suddenly wealthy from a secret Abbe passed on to him, and utilizing the help of various smugglers such as Luigi (JB BLANC) and Jacopo (LUIS GUZMAN), Edmond reinvents himself as the Count of Monte Cristo and sets into motion his plan of revenge.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Regardless of whether it's nature or nurture based, or comes from being exposed to too much violence in movies, TV shows, video games or comic books, show me one kid who does something bad to another - such as punching or humiliating him or her - and I'll show you the "victim" who then sets out to get his or her revenge on the perpetrator.

Just because both types of kids eventually grow up doesn't mean that such behavior and retaliation disappears in adulthood. In fact, sometimes it's even worse. Storytellers have known this for centuries and have accordingly used revenge as the plot or underlying theme for countless novels, movies and TV shows.

One of the more popular such literary works was the 1844 novel, "The Count of Monte Cristo." Written by Alexandre Dumas - who also penned the well-known "The Three Musketeers" in the same year - the epic swashbuckler style tale of a man who sets out to get his revenge on those who wronged him has been brought to the screen - both big and small- many times.

Undeterred by that fact - although the last well-known version was the 1975 telefilm starring Richard Chamberlain and Tony Curtis - writer Jay Wolpert (a TV game producer turned first-time screenwriter) and director Kevin Reynolds ("Waterworld," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves") have decided to tackle the story one more time.

Not wishing to mess too much with what's worked rather well and stood the test of time over the past century and a half, the filmmakers have kept the title and most of the plot intact. Namely, that involves Edmond - decently played by Jim Caviezel ("Angel Eyes," "Frequency") - being educated by fellow prisoner Abbe -- Richard Harris ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Gladiator") obviously having fun in the role - to get his revenge on Fernand - played to full hammy villainy by Guy Pearce ("Memento," "L.A. Confidential") - who implicated him for treason and then stole his bride to be.

Viewers unfamiliar with the original work or previous adaptations will obviously recognize the underlying, universal revenge theme as well as similarities to films such as "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and "The Mask of Zorro," both of which borrowed some elements or at least were inspired by Dumas' work.

Those familiar with the latter, however, may cringe at some of the artistic liberties taken with the piece, one of which involves the victim and perpetrator starting off as friends. While that would seem to add an interesting layer of complexity to the proceedings - what with the added personal betrayal - Reynolds and Wolpert don't really manage to do much with the change. Fernand doesn't seem to possess any sort of guilt for framing his friend, while Edmond's anger and later vengeance are neither stymied by their past nor particularly extra-fueled by the discovery of his "friend's" deed.

Thus, we essentially return to Dumas' basic epic plot that spans some thirteen years and various settings. Although the "Let's see Edmond kick some butt" retaliatory moments obviously have their crowd-pleasing, vicariously cathartic appeal to them, the film's most engaging moments involve the protagonist's time in prison and interaction with his fellow inmate.

The filmmakers competently set up the various scenes - that thankfully don't feel too episodic despite the passage of a great deal of time - and then let Caviezel and Harris do their thing. While it's clearly no "Papillon" as this one feels like a big dress up film compared to that grueling 1973 Steve McQueen picture, the moments are fairly entertaining and engaging thanks to some good performances and occasionally sharp writing.

At other times, however, the dialogue isn't quite so sharp, with more than one instance of it sounding far too contemporary for the period setting. Much of that occurs in scenes involving Luis Guzman ("Traffic," "Boogie Nights") as a smuggler indebted to the hero, but that character and his lines do generate much of the film's humor.

In addition, the third act, where the protagonist finally sets his trap to ensnare the perpetrators, isn't as much fun as it seems it should be. As it's been decades since I last read the work, I don't recall the retaliatory measures present in it, but the ones here don't crackle with as much vigor and venom as some might expect and/or hope to see.

Then there's the inevitable mano a mano confrontation that feels far too contrived and predictable, with the successive arrival and placement of various additional characters turning the whole sequence into a flat finale that become progressively sillier as it unfolds and folds under its own ridiculous weight.

All of that aside, the film has some fun moments, the scenery is gorgeous - the picture was shot in Ireland and Malta - and Pearce is a hoot to watch as the villain since he plays him in full smarmy and hammy glee. Supporting performances are decent from the likes of James Frain ("Titus," "Sunshine") and Albie Woodington ("The 13th Warrior," "First Knight"), but Dagmara Dominczyk ("Rock Star," "Keeping the Faith") is rather flat as the love interest that's been cast and played in somewhat of a subdued Catherine Zeta-Jones vein.

Overall, the film isn't anything spectacular, but it's moderately enjoyable and should please fans of the old saying about revenge being a dish best served cold. While it might not come off with a bit more freezer burn than frostbite, "The Count of Monte Cristo" is entertaining enough, despite its flaws, to rate as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed January 9, 2002 / Posted January 25, 2002

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