With a filmography stretching back to an 1898 adaptation of The Corsican Brothers and encompassing nearly 100 films (not counting knockoffs, miniseries, and unofficial sequels), Alexandre Dumas could be the most frequently adapted author in film; the estate of Stephen King will have to work hard to keep apace in the next century. Why the enduring appeal? Different filmmakers and different times provide the reasons. In the 1970s, for instance, Richard Lester used his superb two-part adaptation of The Three Musketeers as a chance to salute physical comedy while commenting on the absurdity of war. While Lester found Dumas' work filled with before-their-time antiheroes, Kevin Reynolds discovers precisely the opposite: a bastion of unreconstructed heroics. Creating a bastion of unreconstructed corniness seems just as suited to his purposes in his shamelessly crowd-pleasing adaptation of The Count Of Monte Cristo. A twist of fate and historical fact sets the story in motion, as a crew with a wounded captain sets ashore on Elba, home to an exiled Napoleon. After a meeting with the once and future emperor, two shipmates, lifelong friends Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce, return with unexpected cargo. The former has what he believes to be an innocent letter from Napoleon to a friend, while the other has a renewed sense of jealousy and a new channel for it. Before long, Pearce has the comically guileless Caviezel arrested for treason, at which point he takes the opportunity to move in on Caviezel's fiancée and send his former friend to a remote island prison. There, Caviezel begins marking time by the annual beatings that commemorate the anniversary of his imprisonment, until the unexpected arrival, via tunnel, of imprisoned former priest Richard Harris. Both men have time on their hands, so Harris begins instructing his new friend in subjects as diverse as economics and fencing, giving him the education his peasant background never allowed and priming him for a chance to take revenge. (It is, however, never clear when Harris teaches Caviezel to adopt the vocal inflections of John Malkovich.) What follows, paced breathlessly thanks to the film's need to squeeze the novel to a manageable length, involves pirates, a boundless treasure, a hot-air balloon, a silly goatee, considerable swordplay, some not-so-shocking revelations, and far more entertainment than might be expected from the director of Waterworld. More a solid craftsman than a visionary, Reynolds keeps Count moving briskly up to the final act, which tests the limits of how cold a dish revenge should be before it's served. Meanwhile, the cast clearly relishes the chance to play unshaded heroes and villains. While fleeting moments from Pearce and Luis Guzmán (as Caviezel's loyal servant) suggest the film might have been even more fun had they been allowed to loosen up a bit, the finished product still offers little cause for complaint.
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