The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

Count on revenge!
Kevin Reynolds
Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Richard Harris, Luis Guzman
The Setup: 
Man unjustly imprisoned changes identity and returns for vengeance.

So I ordered the novel of this, which I had seen when it was out in theaters, thinking it would be a fun little lark and a break from my more serious reading. The key was, I expected a little 300-page book I could finish quickly. So when it arrived, and turned out to be a 1,250-page book literally four inches thick, I was like W??? T??? F??? All that prose for such a thin little story? I was like "No way am I wasting all that time reading THAT"--some long-winded piece of fluff, regarded by many as a "children's book" of no literary merit, and published as a serial, i.e. with a sense of length for its own sake. But then someone at work saw it on my desk and exclaimed "Oh my God, I LOVE that book!" and then I got kind of curious--what COULD he be going on so long about? Now I'm 350 pages in and, dear reader, I am HOOKED.

This movie is directed by Kevin Reynolds, notorious director of Waterworld, who proves to be competent if uninspired. It stars Jim Caviezel, noted Jesus from The Passion of The Christ, and promises the fun of seeing the delightful Guy Pearce devoting his gifts to a role of sneering villainy, which he delivers in spades, seemingly having the time of his life. And since they've boiled the huge book down to a two-hour movie, there should be lots of narrative interest in how they've sliced away at the story. So let's go!

We open with a title telling us that the movie starts with Napoleon at the end of his initial reign, imprisoned on the isle of Elba. It is forbidden for anyone to land there, for any reason, but our intrepid Edmond Dantes, that's Caviezel, and his buddy Fernand, that's Pearce, land there one evening to get medical care for their captain. We have a swordfight! Because we are, after all, in a contemporary film that cannot let its audience go too long without some action! Our heroes end up at the feet of Napoleon, who takes them in. They're relaxing and thinking about the good times, when Fernand says "too bad it can't always be like this. Adventurers cannot always stay friends." But Dantes is a simple soul who doesn't listen. Then Dantes is taken out for a walk by Napoleon, who charges him to carry a letter back for him. Edmond protests, but is forced. Remember, even being on the island is treason. Fernand witnesses the exchange.

They arrive in Marseilles. Edmond is awarded the captain's post on the next voyage, enraging his rival, Danglars. Then we meet the delightful Mercedes, Edmond's fiancé, who is friends with Fernand. Turns out Fernand is in love with her--only you can't quite get into the story at this point because you are like LOOK at their HAIR!!! They are both done out under massive pounds of hair product, Mercedes with these immobile ringlets that would look more at home on a statue, or a bird emerging from an oil spill, and Fernand has this blouffed-out assemblage of fluffy curls with four distinct bangs handing over his forehead like an iron rake. It's quite a leap of the imagination to think any humans of the 1850s might have styled their hair this way, and I did spend the entire scene riveted by their hair. Anyway, Fernand is telling Mercedes how he can rock it hard and rock it all night, but she leaves him mid-seduction to run into Dantes' arms, and then sneers in jealous contempt when goody-two-shoes Dantes announced that he's been made captain. She and Dantes run off to make sweet, sweet love, so that we can establish their romantic bond.

Already we've had massive departures from the novel, in which the meeting with Napoleon took place before the novel begins, and Fernand is not Dantes' best friend at all, but only a rival for Mercedes. She is supposed to be Catalan, by the way, but here is as WASPy as they come. The whole plot is set in motion [in the novel] by a letter this other guy Danglars writes but throws away, knowing that hotheaded Fernand will retrieve it and send it. Dantes and Mercedes are at their betrothal, made much clearer in the book, when Edmond is arrested. Now, well, it's been several minutes without an action scene, so we have Edmond make an escape attempt and run to the house of Fernard for help. Fernand instead turns on him, they have a swordfight, and Fernand hands him over to the police. This is a huge departure from the novel, in which Edmond has no idea who is responsible for his imprisonment until much later, but is done to supply the movie with a clear villain. Of course, it requires Fernand to make a 180-degree turn of character to his friend, but hey, it's the movies. Pearce runs with his seething villain role, unafraid, as usual, to let notes of the vicious queen seep into his performance. In fact, throughout this movie, one is confronted with the sight of several men in dandyish outfits being vicious, vicious queens.

Edmond is taken to be judged by Villefort (as in Villain), who is about to let him go when one piece of information brings him back--that the name of the Napoleonic treasonist named in the letter is Villefort's father. Rather than set him free, Villefort has Dantes thrown into the dungeon of the Chateau D'If, a godforsaken island prison (which really exists), in order to protect his father. At the prison, Edmond meets the next of the vicious queens, the long-haired warden of the prison, who strips him and whips him for his sadistic pleasure, a scene and character entirely invented for the film. About four years go by, but, if you look at the picture here, you see that despite being kept in a dungeon for four years with nothing to eat but a daily pan of watery stew, Edmond still maintains a plump, muscular physique. He's doing his crunches! I will applaud them that they do something virtually never seen in other films that portray characters in physical suffering, which is make the actor's teeth gray.

Eventually the old prisoner next door burrows in, having taken a wrong turn while trying to escape, and they are able to crawl through the tunnel to visit each other's cells. The older guy is played by Richard Harris, and he eventually teaches Edmond to read and write, and all about history and every subject known to man. He also--and this is something added for the movie--teaches his swordplay, and ends up becoming kind of a sensei, showing Edmond his special hand-between-the-raindrops movement, which they accomplish using sped-up footage (silly and incongruous with the rest of the film). Eventually Harris gives Edmond a map to a buried treasure, but is soon felled by a tunnel breach. Again, all a vast simplification of the novel in ways it isn't really worth going into. Edmond switches the bodies and is thrown into the sea, pulling the sadistic jailer along with him, and, in a surprise for a major film like this, has go back and bludgeon the jailer to death by hand, instead of just leaving him to die, which would have been a bit less salty, but more acceptable. Anyway, Edmond is free!

He washes ashore by these bandits, and ends up having to fight one of them to the death, who turns out to be played by the delightful Luis Guzman. Who is featuring a nice cropped haircut and looking perhaps hotter than he ever has. Edmond spares his life, and now Guzman is loyal to him forever. Of course all of this now comes off as a cavalcade of cliches, since all of these story turns have been incorporated into other works, but, at least in the novel, you don't mind as much because one feels that this is where they originated. Edmond takes Guzman and they go to Monte Cristo where, after a little bit of searching, they find the treasure. It is now in about twenty 2x3-foot cases, where in the novel it was just one case that size, containing enough to make Edmond a millionaire several times over.

Now, a bit more than halfway through, we are going to start the second part of a story that divides neatly into two sections, although novel-wise, what we've had this far was only the first third. Meaning that there is even more compression in the second half, but as I haven't read that yet, you'll be spared the novel-to-film comparison (for now!). Our scene shifts to Paris. We see Guzman, unfortunately brought into the nightmare bouff hair society mentioned earlier, buying a grand chateau and sending out exclusive black envelopes with invitations to the cream of Parisian society. There is a grand outdoor party on the grounds, and soon a hot air balloon emerges from the sky, it lands (he seems to have hired Cirque du Soliel for the event), and out comes.... The Count of Monte Cristo! Which is Edmond all decked out and ready to get his revenge, striding forward with his cape billowing out behind him. And one thing I love about the film is that it gives this moment a lot of drama--it was pretty much the ONLY thing I remembered from seeing it the first time. And it is THE turning point of the story, so it deserves the drama. Seeing it this time, however, I wanted even more drama. It feels clipped. Come on guys, this is THE moment, let's have at it!

By the way, the re-introduction of Edmond in the novel is very interesting. The narrative leaves Edmond entirely and we meet these other two characters, and go quite a while with them, as they eventually meet a man who calls himself the Count of Monte Cristo, and gradually draw closer to him. The narrative actually succeeds, for a while, in keeping you guessing whether this guy actually is Edmond, and also casts him as a terrifying, pale and cold vampire figure, a characterization I assure you is not given to our character here.

Well, wouldn't you know, Mercedes has married Fernand. They have a son, Albert. We see that Fernand is still a bad guy because he kills a completely random dude in a duel at dawn, and also cheats on Mercedes, so we can be sure that she's unhappy in her marriage and would be open to Edmond's return. Soon the Count is giving a toast at a party for Albert, which is a father's role, that Fernand is too self-centered to fulfill. Then Mercedes, who recognizes Edmond immediately--for what they feel is true love--throws herself at him in a carriage, and he must refuse. Soon after we discover that the engagement ring, made of string, because Edmond was too poor for a real ring, is still on her finger! And fresh as a daisy after fifteen years! That really is some durable string.

Meanwhile the Count engineers some sort of fight with Danglars, which ends up with Danglars in an impromptu noose, the Count telling him his identity before letting him hang. I appreciated that they let Edmond engage in a little sadism, though it could have been more. Since we have less than 45 minutes left, the vengeance starts flying fast and thick, without too much time for resonance or satisfaction. Villefort is arrested for some reason I can't remember now. Then Fernand is charged with murder! Then it is revealed that Albert is Edmond's son! Because Mercedes married Fernand a mere three months after Edmond was arrested. Hmmm, yeah, she's so faithful.

It all comes to a climax at this stone ruin amongst picturesque foliage where Edmond finally confronts Fernand and reveals his identity. It's a bit amusing as Fernand now recognizes Edmond simply because he has shaved his goatee. Soon the gang is all there as they are joined by Guzman, Mercedes and even Albert! Mercedes tells Fernand that Albert is not his son, there's some swordplay, and Fernand runs off... but comes back. Then Guzman hands Edmond a sword, saying "You must end this... even the priest would have wanted that." Ummm, well, both the priest (that's Richard Harris, back in prison) and Guzman up until now have been gently trying to get Edmond to give up his quest for revenge, as it will only destroy him, yadda yadda, so Guzman saying this now is, you know, total bullshit. When Oprah tells us to face your personal demons, I don't think she means by killing your parents. But swashes must be buckled, so Edmond goes out, they have a sword fight, and Fernand is killed. Then there's a short epilogue in which Edmond bemoans the way vengeance consumed his life, and vows to change, even as you're thinking "Well, it worked out pretty well for you, didn't it? You're rich, you have an instant wife and child, all your enemies are gone, and now everything's peachy keen." But revenge is bad, kids, remember: BAD.

So as a movie, could be worse. Fun enough. Will get you through a night's sitting, but even so is a bit rushed and shallow and the revenge is only mildly satisfying. Guy Pearce is ideally cast, if you like that sort of over-the-top sniveling villainy, and is super fun. Although I must admit that Guy Pearce can pretty much do no wrong in my book. Or at least, HAS done none. Jim Caviezel does a great job as the simple, naive Edmond, convincingly playing a sweet-but-dumb innocent in a similar manner to the way Ryan O'Neal was used in Barry Lyndon. The problem is that he's much more challenged in the role of the powerful, worldly Count, and comes off like an actor playing dress-up. He just doesn't have the gravity and the intelligence and can't pull off the worldly nobility needed, although it's not a huge defect, since the film is so watered-down from what he's supposed to be anyway.

So since I wrote the above I am now 800 pages into the novel (just 450 left to go!), enough to realize that this movie bears virtually no relation to the book at all. Revenge is a dish served frozen and over an extremely drawn-out period in the novel, and the Count doesn't just want to kill these people, he wants to ruin them and make them suffer for long periods. Which I understand is not amenable to cinematic satisfactions, or the task of compressing 1,250 pages into a two-hour film. What this film loses completely is the powerful figure of the Count, who comes off as immensely powerful, intensely charismatic and just amazingly fun. It becomes clear that he is a precursor to Batman... Dark, painful past, rich playboy with a secret identity who is one step ahead of everyone and manipulates everything to his own ends.

So, really great, fun novel if you want to read something that big. As for this movie, amusing enough as it is, but it won't give you much more than a whiff of what the novel is all about and only the slightest glimpse of the power of this story when told in its full glory.

Should you watch it: 

Unnecessary, but it won't kill you.