Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:11 - Released 1/25/02

The Count Of Monte Cristo is one of those classic works of literature that has been done and done again, to the point that producers usually start adapting it in weird ways, like setting it in the Bronx in the 1950s or something. A recent example of this is Peter Hyams's September release The Musketeer, a Matrix/Hong Kong-flavored adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's other classic tale, whose lackluster performance at the box office, to be fair, can probably be attributed in part to the fact that it was released just 4 days before September 11. But it also just wasn't a very good movie.

At any rate, director Kevin Reynolds and the producers of this version, which stars James Caviezel, Guy Pearce, and elder statesman Richard Harris (still visible in theaters as Harry Potter's Professor Dumbledore), resisted the temptation to tinker with the author's vision, and what results is a straightforward and beautifully accoutered period piece, rife with technical authenticity and eye-pleasing production values. The screenplay, adapted from the original 1845 novel by TV game show producer Jay Wolpert, is unfortunately simplistic, however, with major events covered at breakneck speeds to push us through the whole story in just over 2 hours. An epic saga like this deserves a mini-series (like Josée Dayan's 1998 French TV version), but Wolpert's radical abbreviation of events is presumably the result of a choice not to leave anything out, which would be difficult and probably not very well received.

Caviezel plays Edmund Dantes, a poor, illiterate seaman with fabulous good looks and tons of heart, who is about to be married to his true love, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), in 1814 France. His luck at netting such a fabulous babe has raised the ire of his jealous friend, Fernand Mondego (Pearce), the son of a count who wants Mercedes for himself. Conspiring with a shady lawyer named Villefort (James Frain), Ferdinand has Edmund fasely accused of treason and sent away to a forbidding, Alcatraz-style island prison. At first confident that God will deliver him from the hell he has been cast into, Edmund spends several years enjoying regular beatings from the cruel warden (Michael Wincott), and finally loses hope, renouncing God and attempting to kill himself. Meanwhile on the outside, the despondent Mercedes, thinking that Edmund has been executed, grudgingly marries Ferdinand and becomes an unhappy countess.

But then Edmund meets another prisoner, an elderly priest (Harris) who is bent on escape. The two form a friendship, and during the next several years they work together in tunneling their way out while the old man teaches Edmund everything from the three R's to swordplay, not to mention the location of a fabulous treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. When Edmund finally escapes, he meets and saves the life of a friendly pirate (Luis Guzmán), and the two discover the treasure. Using his newfound and unlimited wealth, he becomes the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, and begins an elaborate plot to exact revenge against his enemies.

Besides the oversimplification of plot (and the dialogue, which suffers from a sort of dumbed-down quality and contains some blatant anachronisms), there are other discrepancies, like the complete absence of aging among characters in a 16-year story line. But thank goodness for Richard Harris. While the acting by Caviezel, Pearce, and Guzman is merely adequate, Harris, despite limited screen time, elevates this film's quality to a level better than merely the sum of its parts. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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