I must admit I didn’t have very high hopes for this latest adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel as any attempt since the 1973 version, directed by Richard Lester, has never quite felt right. Even the one starring Kiefer Sutherland and my love for him has allowed me to put up with a lot of shit over the years. Although, it does star Rome star Ray Stevenson who I appreciate almost as much.
The latest version from Resident Evil’s Paul W.S. Anderson is perhaps the closest you can get to a modernised version of a narrative set during the reign of Louis XIII. For the most part, the film stays close to Dumas’ original: the young D’Artagnan leaves for Paris and is introduced to musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis. The four then find themselves mixed up in a political plot in which they must stop the villainous Cardinal Richelieu overthrowing the young King.
Although the writers obviously felt that a modern audience would not be able to accept this simple tale of four men fighting for King and country so we find ourselves in a steam punk version of seventeenth century France complete with airships armed with machine guns and flame-throwers. The three main characters become more than the traditional sword wielding defenders of the French Monarchy and find themselves becoming examples of a more modern action hero.
Anderson has certainly attempted to bring some fun into this well known story but it ends up being a ridiculous and mind boggling experience. The film tries not to take itself too seriously and the opening sequence is a perfect example of this. With images lifted straight from Batman, The Matrix and video games, such as Assassins Creed, the three musketeers are introduced in an blur of romance, violence and booby traps. This part of the film is actually well played out, if you ignore the awful slow-motion fight sequences (something that has not only become one of the most annoying of Hollywood clichés but also something that is pulled off much more successfully elsewhere) and the odd faces Matthew MacFadyen pulls as he wields his rapier. Anderson certainly embraces the swashbuckling side of the narrative.
However, there is something about the film that prevents this attempted light-hearted attitude ever fully taking over. Unfortunately for Anderson, there is a lot more to Dumas’ tale than non-stop action. It relies on political treachery, heart ache and double-crossing spies. It is these elements that gives Anderson most of his problems. For the most part he attempts to push them into the background but when it is necessary his attempts are fairly pathetic.
The main offender is the failed romance between MacFayden’s, Athos, and Milla Jovovich’s, Milady. It is something that we are supposed to believe continually haunts Athos but it is barely given any prominence. After the opening scene it is only briefly referred to again in a few conversations. The romance was never believable meaning its destruction is utterly pointless.
To argue that the film’s major positive is that is does not take itself too seriously is both a flimsy argument and, more importantly, a fallacy. A film that is at its heart a political drama cannot completely commit itself to this sense of fun. Anderson seems to be completely perplexed by the actual story he tries to introduce. The plot to overthrow the King is rushed and certainly secondary to the visual aspects.
The film falls down dramatically from it’s poor script and terrible narrative structure. The script is littered with the expected Hollywood clichés as well as more than enough plot holes and unanswered questions. At it’s best the script is laughable and at it’s worst is painful. Take for example any of Athos’ speeches about being a damaged individual driven to drink and despair or the excruciating scene played out between D’Artagnan and his father before he leaves for Paris.
Although, despite the excruciating language, the aspect of the film that annoyed me the most was the overuse of CGI. Mostly because it is an obvious attempt to distract the audience from the poor craftsmanship of the whole thing. The main objective seems to have been to make sure as much was happening on screen as possible in the hope that the audience stopped listening to the words or noticing the acting.
The whole film has an air of desperation after it’s acceptance that there is little substance behind the gaudy spectacle. Of course saying this, there will always be a part of me that finds immense joy from watching these familiar characters outwitting the evil Cardinal and totally annihilating armies of men. Since I first watched the 1973 version I have had a secret desire to one day become a musketeer and, despite his shortcomings, Anderson has reignited my desire to smite my enemies with my trusty blade.