A young man is damned for crimes he didn't commit, cast into the outer darkness for a decade, and then emerges to try and show everyone that it wasn't his fault... But enough about the way director Kevin Reynolds was treated after Waterworld, let's talk about The Count Of Monte Cristo instead.
Reynolds didn't deserve the scorn heaped on him for his watery futureshock `thriller'. Financially, it may have been dead in the water, but it was hardly his fault that a muddled but interesting narrative got bent out of shape by the inexorable gravitational pull of Kevin Costner's gigantic ego. In short, Reynolds deserves a chance to wipe the slate clean and The Count Of Monte Cristo - - with its big budget and up-and-coming cast - might just be the Get Out Of Jail Free card he's been looking for.
Bright-eyed young sailor Edmond Dantès (Jim Caviezel) thinks his life is going swimmingly. He's got a loyal best mate, Fernand (Guy Pearce), a beautiful fiancée, Mercédès (Dagmara Dominczyk), and a chance to become ship's captain if he keeps his nose clean. But then the young lad gets mixed up in a plot to return Napoleon to the throne of France, and before you can say ""Ma tante est dans le jardin" he's been wrongfully imprisoned on an island jail and left to rot. Emerging 13 years later, he reinvents himself - - with the aid of a ton of hidden treasure - - as the fabulously rich and debonair Count of Monte Cristo, and sets out to wreak bloody vengeance on the three men who plotted his arrest.
Apart from adding a bit of childhood rivalry to Alexandre Dumas' dark and nasty plot, Jay Wolpert's script sticks pretty closely to the original novel's story. This has never been a tale easily turned into a chirpy swashbuckler à la Dumas' The Three Musketeers - - the way that Dantès cold-bloodedly ruins his enemies should always leave a bitter taste in the mouth - - and to his credit Reynolds doesn't try to soften the retribution. Okay, some edges are blunted, light-hearted touches are sprinkled, and Luis Guzman's turn as the count's manservant Jacopo offers a few smirks (intentional and otherwise - - the usually excellent Guzman isn't comfortable in a period setting), but this is mostly a trip into the land of bleak melodrama.
The bulk of Reynolds' cast suits the material well. Pitching it somewhere between panto and high drama, Pearce brings a seedy charm to Fernand, both as the carefree young adventurer he starts out as and as the debauched aristo he's transformed into by the time Dantès returns from chokey. Alongside him, James Frain is typically slick and crafty as the magistrate who imprisons Dantès, Dominczyk is appropriately fetching as his love interest, and an assortment of familiar British character actors fill out the background colourfully.
But the real star of the show is Caviezel, who puts the disaster that was Angel Eyes behind him to prove that his mesmerising performance in The Thin Red Line was no fluke. Suitably wide-eyed and innocent when playing Dantès as a young man, he hardens before our eyes as fate deals him a bum hand until, by the end, he's utterly convincing as a sinister master manipulator. Admittedly Guy Pearce is noticeably more of a dab hand with the sword than our handsome hero, but Caviezel's quiet intensity and now trademark haunted eyes mean it's him you'll be watching.
Reynolds, however, deftly ensures that his turn doesn't overshadow the rest of the cast, while also delivering action aplenty. When the big set-pieces come along - - Dantès' arrest, the escape from prison, the Count's grand entrance in a hot air balloon - he handles them with real style, distracting from minor flaws with grand flourishes. All right, he lets the dawdling jail scenes occupy far too much time - Richard Harris' turn as Dantès' prison mentor Abbe Faria is good, but it doesn't justify the feeling you've just watched the 13-year sentence in real time. But he shifts things up several gears as Dantès' plans for revenge come to fruition in the last half hour.
The end result is overlong but very enjoyable. So while Count... isn't an out-and-out pardon for Reynolds, it's certainly good enough to bag him parole.
Flabby midsection aside, The Count Of Monte Cristo is a chunk of classic tubthumping melodrama. The blazing final act makes up for any number of earlier flaws.