One of the most common accolades that a movie can get is that “it makes you think.” “The Count of Monte Cristo” is good precisely because it doesn”t make you think. This is a film overflowing with swashbuckling, betrayal, revenge, piracy, hidden treasure, knife fights, prison escapes and a touch of Napoleon, and it works not in spite of but because of its simple, unpretentious tone and its lack of . Besides having one of the most unintentionally funny (or terrible) taglines in years “Count on revenge ” the film succeeds because of its simplicity and entertainment value.
The story is your basic “man wrongfully imprisoned, man escapes from prison, man gets rich and takes his revenge on all his enemies” adventure. “The Count of Monte Cristo,” based on the book by Alexandre Dumas, begins with a French sailor, Edmund Dantes (James Caviezel, “Frequency”), and his friend and son of a Count, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), who, while attempting to save Dantes” captain, find themselves on the island of Elba, where Napoleon has been made a permanent guest.
Upon their return, Dantes is given command of a ship for his bravery and is reunited with his fiance Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). Things are looking up, that is, until he is arrested for treason and thrown in the dreaded Chateau d”If prison. It turns out that his friend Mondego has betrayed Dantes to the French authorities for accepting a letter from Napoleon, and to add insult to injury, Mondego is aggressively pursuing Mercedes.
In prison, Dantes has nothing to look forward to but a bowl full of gruel and an annual beating from the sadistic warden, Dorleac (the raspy voiced Michael Wincott, who, surprise, surprise, plays a bad guy). As he loses faith, a man named Faria (Richard Harris) breaks through Dantes” floor. Faria, who has been digging a tunnel for years, has apparently miscalculated.
As they become friends, Faria teaches Dantes everything he knows, including swordplay and fighting. Think of him as a Napoleonic-era Obi-Wan Kenobi OK, maybe more like Mr. Miyagi. After Dantes makes a daring escape from the prison, he and his loyal servant Jacobo (Luis Guzmn, “Boogie Nights,” “Traffic”) find the treasure of Sparta, and Dantes begins a campaign of revenge, masquerading as the Count of Monte Cristo. (If any of this sounds familiar and you haven”t read the book, it is probably because “The Mask of Zorro” (1998) borrowed liberally from the story.)
Most of the characters in the film are excellent, with the eternal competence of Dantes and the unending treachery of Mondego providing a deliciously easy moral choice for the audience.
Pearce redefines the word “sneer” with his over the top performance as the snotty, deceitful Mondego. He overuses the snaggletooth grin that he uses to express disgust, anger, fear, etc., but his intensity is unending, and he plays a perfect despicable character.
Caviezel gives one of his best performances, changing from a brave but nave sailor to a calm and vengeful man with a powerfully cold stare. He gives a convincing performance, but his dialogue is sometimes less than brilliant, and his character seems surprisingly two dimensional considering the transition that he goes through.
Guzmn, a knife-fighting smuggler turned loyal servant, is the main source of comic relief in the movie. When swearing his allegiance to Dantes, he spouts lines like “I swear on all my dead relatives and even the ones who aren”t feeling well, I am your man forever.” Despite a bad wig and some cheesy dialogue, Guzmn is thoroughly likable and manages to fit the role fairly well.
This film, directed by Kevin Reynolds (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Waterworld”) feels closer to an old Douglas Fairbanks movie than to other recent action movies of this type that try to be too modern. It is not a film that you see to explore the human spirit or the deep psychological processes of the characters. You watch it to see sword-fighting, treasure chests in hidden grottos and sweet, sweet revenge.