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'Count Of Monte Cristo'

'Count Of Monte Cristo' stunning swashbuckler

Friday, January 25, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two new French swashbucklers in one week are a bit more swash than my buckles are used to: All those castles and torches make me almost appreciate Howard Hanna and Duquesne Light.

'The Count Of Monte Cristo'

RATING: PG-13 for violence, swordplay and some sensuality

STARRING: Jim Caviezel, Dagmara Dominczyk, Richard Harris, Guy Pearce, James Frain

DIRECTOR: Kevin Reynolds

WEB SITE: bventertainment.go.



If you're up for just a single rather than double foray into the territory, I'd recommend "The Count of Monte Cristo," director Kevin Reynolds' visually stunning remake of the Dumas pere classic, over "Brotherhood of the Wolf."

To refresh your junior-high reading-list memory, the adventure goes like this: Honest Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) plans to wed beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) but his best-turned-worst friend Fernand (Guy Pearce) wants her for himself. Edmond is falsely arrested for treason and imprisoned by evil magistrate Villefort (James Frain) in Chateau D'If, the French Alcatraz, where you're allowed one visitor a year -- the warden, who flogs you on the anniversary of your arrival. They should currently be making reservations there for the Enron executives.

Anyway, someone has scratched "God Will Give Me Justice" into the wall of Edmond's cell. After 13 years, God doesn't. But an ancient inmate played by Richard Harris does. "Neglect becomes our ally," he says. Under the old man's secret tutelage, Edmond learns to read, write, fence and understand Machiavelli as well as "The Wealth of Nations" -- an all-round jailhouse GED.

Its lengthy prison sequence is one of the film's realistic best, culminating in a terrific escape scene that lands Edmond in the midst of smugglers. Forced into a knife-fight-to-the-death with pirate Jacopo (Luis Guzman), Edmond shows mercy and thereby gains a sidekick for life, plus gainful employment in the smuggling ring. Which leads him to a hidden treasure that leads him to transformation into the debonair faux Count of Monte Cristo.

The rest is revenge which, like the Count's personality, is sweet. Or is it less than satisfying? -- "a meal endlessly cooked but seldom eaten," as wise old Harris opines.

Andrew Dunn's photography is worth savoring, especially the Count's grand entrance (descending from a hot-air balloon!) at his mystery ball. All in all, Reynolds' direction is as competent as the costumed performances (but not the makeup department -- evidently fresh out of silver-fox Grecian formula, since nobody ages in 13 years). The swordfights rival the 1934 Robert Donat and French Jean Marais/Louis Jourdan versions.

Jay Wolpert's screenplay is intelligent most of the way, until the characters and comeuppances collide in a melodramatic rush at the end. Most mauled is Mercedes -- one useless femme, to be sure -- but thank God, after a roll around the bogs and a bullet in the shoulder, her lipstick remains miraculously unsmudged.

That climactic convergence, as crowded as the stateroom in "Night at the Opera," gives this otherwise serious rendering a "Count of Monty Python" touch at the end.

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