Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fun for All or All for Fun? THE THREE MUSKETEERS


Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel The Three Musketeers has been adapted for the movies many times. After all, the familiar story is a rich source of swordplay and intrigue. Musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, with the help of young would-be musketeer d’Artagnan, try to protect the French monarchy from the dastardly coup being planned by the evil Cardinal Richelieu. It’s a great story, though it’s rarely made into good movies. I think it’s safe to say, though, that the story has never before been told in the way director Paul W.S. Anderson and screenwriters Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies have in this newest adaptation. They’ve turned it into a poor-man’s Pirates of the Caribbean, a swashbuckling 3D superhero movie with a thick layer of steampunk nonsense and genre tomfoolery ladled on top. (It’s greatest accomplishment is sure to be the exceptionally confused book reports that kids in the audience may be writing in the future.) Did I mention I kind of enjoyed it?

This is a film that starts off with a note of such high ridiculousness that it’s pleasing to find that it never climbs down. It all starts in Venice, where the Three Musketeers are introduced with splashy comic-book style freeze frames that spell out their names in thick ink, as if the screen has briefly turned to parchment. Athos (Matthew Macfadyen) bubbles up from underwater and attacks some guards with a multi-pronged crossbow. A cloaked Aramis (Luke Evans) dives off a bridge to smash into a gondola. A chained Porthos (Ray Stevenson) rips the shackles off the wall and beats back his captors. Meeting up, it’s clear that they are in the middle of heist. They, along with the sultry Milady (Milla Jovovich), are stealing secret plans to a warship hidden deep within Da Vinci’s vault that is accessible through a retractable staircase, the base of which is covered in Resident Evil by way of Indiana Jones booby traps. It’s this kind of wild invention and freewheeling genre stealing that will characterize the movie to come. We haven’t even really started yet. This is mere prologue.

The heist goes wrong care of an unexpected double cross, so the Musketeers are wallowing in their less than heroic status, nearly destitute on the streets of Paris, when sweet-faced, smooth-faced d’Artagnan (nicely earnest Logan Lerman) rides into town hoping to become a Musketeer like his father once was. Through some tortured scenes of sometimes-painful dialogue, the three become four as they begin to realize the extent to which France needs their help. The movie is top-heavy with thudding scenes of scheming and needling that move the characters with some degree of narrative bobbling into position for the forthcoming action sequences. Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz, always welcome) and Milady plan to break apart the French monarchy by creating distrust between the adolescent king (Freddie Fox) and his equally young bride (Juno Temple). Waltz, looking for all the world like a teacher disappointed in his students, regards the childish royalty with barely concealed disgust. He’s not much happier with the British envoy he’s planning to use as an unknowing patsy for his plan to work. That would be the Duke of Buckingham, played hammily and wonderfully against type by Orlando Bloom.

So the stage is set for some exciting action, and it arrives more or less on schedule. Anderson, shooting in 3D, creates some great crazy visuals that play with depth and space. As the film slips farther and farther away from Dumas, it arrives at an uneven, but terrific, sense of boyish adventure with an anything goes genre freedom. A woman in full period costume rappels down the side of Versailles and then wriggles in slow motion through a corridor filled with invisible trip-wires. Sailing ships with dirigible-like enhancements float across the sky. Flamethrowers and rapid-fire cannons shoot flames and bombs. And still, amidst this pile-up of unexpected imagery that plays like a head-on collision between Terry Gilliam and Hayao Miyazaki, we get simple, fun swordplay and gunfire that thrills as well. Like that other disreputable scholckmeister Michael Bay, 3D has sharpened and clarified Paul W.S. Anderson’s style. It was hard to glimpse in ridiculously terrible movies like Mortal Kombat and Alien vs. Predator, but with Three Musketeers there is a likable self-conscious feeling of playfulness. When Richelieu is confronted with an accusation, he responds, “Am I supposed to laugh maniacally and divulge my plans?” When a flying ship comes crashing down onto a steeple, the architectural flourish appears to slice up out of the screen. Moments like these feel irreverent, gimmicky and completely natural.

Does the whole movie work on this level? No. So much of the film is straining to reach a sense of light fun that remains just out of reach. Dialogue is clunky and strange. Scenes seem to pass with little consequence before suddenly becoming only stifling importance. By the end, it’s clear that the plot is burdened by its own possible future. Characters and events are left dangling just enough for a sequel, which has the unfortunate effect of leaving all the best villains on the sidelines during the climax, while the heroes do battle with some lesser evils. And it’s all so very strange, a movie at once completely derivative and utterly idiosyncratic. It’s both an exasperating and an enjoyable big budget oddity. It’s a movie that will play best to an open-minded audience prepared with patience, indulgence, and low expectations.

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