– Summary –
Director : Peter Hyams
Year Of Release : 2001
Principal Cast : Justin Chambers, Tim Roth, Stephen Rea, Catherine Denueve, Mena Suvari, Bill Treacher, Nick Moran, Steve Speirs, Jean-Pierre Castaldi, Jan Gregor Kremp, David Schoefield, Daniel Mesguich.
Approx Running Time : 104 Minutes
Synopsis: Vengeful Musketeer-wannabe D’Artagnan journeys to Paris seeking to join the legendary Kings Guards, only to discover the order has been forced into retirement by the influence wielded by the corrupt Cardinal, who seeks to start war with Spain and England.
What we think : Rousing version of the Musketeer story is obliterated by Hyams’ heavy handed approach to the material, the insistence on using the then-popular wire-fu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out a year prior) for the sword-fighting sequences, and some truly terrible scripting. Justin Chambers, who would go on to star in Grey’s Anatomy much later, is earnest and attractive for sure, and Hyams has surrounded him with a highly eminent cast, but it’s all for naught as the dreadful editing, illogical conceptual ideas and lazy, idiosyncratic scripting void any positives to come from this revitalizing attempt at bringing the classic story into the new millennium.
All for nought.
Peter Hyams is a director I’ve a lot of time for – as an auteur, he’s delivered plenty of solid, often stylish films, such as Capricorn One, Outland, and the sequel to Kubrick’s 2001, 2010: The Year We Make Contact – a vastly underrated film, in my estimation -, van Damme flicks Timecop and Sudden Death, and 1997’s creature-feature The Relic, before his career began to hit a downward trajectory with End of Days (the Arnie vs Satan shocker) and this, The Musketeer. The Musketeer attempts to reinvigorate the classic Alexandre Dumas story, of the resurgence of the famed French King’s guards, by throwing a couple of American leads (in Justin Chambers and Mena Suvari) in alongside a fairly impressive supporting cast including Tim Roth, Stephen Rea, and Catherine Denueve, the latter of whom is utterly wasted in the nothing role of the French Queen. Unfortunately, Gene Quitano’s lamentably convoluted screenplay ensured that no matter what was achieved on screen, audiences would find this film too far removed from the more popular version, 1993’s exceptionally successful edition which starred Charlie Sheen and Tim Curry, to make it a success. As an attempt to do something different with Dumas’ story, it’s hard to deny Hyams was anything but successful – after all, there’s style to burn here – although the critical outcome was anything but positive. And the end result, which feels like a film about the Musketeers that’s trying to avoid being a film about the Musketeers, just feels underwhelming.
The Musketeer begins in 17th Century France, where a young D’Artagnan witnesses the murder of his parent by the evil Febre (Tim Roth), who is working for the corrupt Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea), who is trying to start a war between France and Spain/England, and usurp the King. D’Artagnan is taken in by Planchet (Jean-Pierre Castaldi), and raised to be a Musketeer like his father. Year later, D’Artagnan and Planchet journey to Paris to seek out becoming one of the Musketeers, only to learn that the famed Kings Guard has been effectively sent into exile through order of the Cardinal, and have become drunken layabouts now that they have nothing to do. D’Artagman meets a young woman Francesca (Mena Suvari) when he stays at a local hotel, and when he decides to rescue the imprisoned head of the Musketeers, Treville (Michael Byrne) on his own, he finds company in elder Musketeers Aramis (Nick Moran) and Porthos (Steve Speiris). Meanwhile, the Musketeers are hunted by Febre, who D’Artagnan seeks revenge upon, and when the Queen is forced to go into hiding, the Musketeers must make one last stand to throw out the power of corruption and evil and restore the rightful power of the King.
During the mid 90’s, I had a bit of a thing for Peter Hyams. I’d seen The Relic, and loved that, so I figured I’d go back and check out some of his other work. Most of that I loved, especially Hyams’s use of cinematography and apparent fascination with shadow and lighting (a factor so ever-present and up-front in The Relic it was impossible to ignore) that piqued my interest in the man as a director. He had a certain style, that much was certain. Whether that style could overcome deficit in story, well, that was another. The Relic’s pulp origins and sense of B-movie style worked in the films’ favor, while I think Hyams’ direction somewhat elevated 2010’s off-centre screenplay above its own potential; that said, Timecop and Sudden Death were both fairly standard action fare, lacking the low-budget-story-with-a-grade-budget that I appreciated about his work as a director. The advent of The Musketeer, however, looked like a return to the harsh-contrast between shadow and light that I’d appreciated in The Relic, so I was among the first to trot off to the cinema to catch it. Which is a pity, because had I waited a bit and heard what folks thought about it, I’d probably never have seen it.
And that would have been a good thing, I’d say.
The Musketeer isn’t a great film; from a story perspective, the film is “loosely” based on the Dumas novel, and by loosely I mean that screenwriter Gene Quitano has pretty much just stolen the names and central ideas of that classic book and reworked some terrible romance, off-kilter violence and insane action sequences (look for the invention of the double-barreled cannon, which just smacks of “modernization” to me) that undo much of the work put in to make this film at least look like it’s of the period. Former Calvin Klein model Justin Chambers, while given lower billing than many of the more accomplished actors in the movie, carries the film with a wink-wink LA surfer kind of performance – he tries to give D’Artagnan the required exuberance of youth but is let down by Hyams’ direction and a script less interested in character and more interested in conflict. Conflict in itself isn’t a bad thing; Quitano’s script barely scratches the surface of these characters, with clunky, wooden lines and and often clunky delivery by Chambers (and, weirdly, Mena Suvari, who looks like she’s chewing blocks of wood while trying to speak in Ye Olde English) and the lulls between action beats do tend to become confusing and dull. Subplots are few, thankfully, with the clear focus of the story being on D’Artagnan, although you’d think with a lack of sidebar elements to consider the film might feel a lot less flat-out trying to accomplish all it sets out to.
That said, there’s considerably few actual sword-fights in this film, considering the heritage on show here. Even the few there are manage to be overwhelmed with Hyams’ insistence that gravity-defying wire-fu take the place of choreographed, planned and legitimately exciting swordplay. D’Artagnan brawls with several heavies in a bar early on in the piece, and ends up straddling wine barrels, clinging to the ceiling beams and flying across the room in displays of athleticism not seen since Errol Flynn did it for real. At one point, D’Artagnan even scales a castle tower (you know, the tall ones like in Cinderella) and manages to engage with several thugs with swords while hanging, Batman-like from the precipice. And a finale involving a wine cellar and twenty-foot ladders has to be the single greatest historically inaccurate sword-fight ever filmed, although it must be said both Roth and Chambers do a solid job of making it convincing in intensity, if not practicality.
In trying to find some positives out of this, one need only look at the film’s overall running time. At a relatively brief 100 minutes, the story doesn’t pause for development beyond what is required to get our players into the right positions. Characters are simple 1-dimensional elements of this film – one gets the sense that we’re expected to use previously held opinions on D’Artagnan, Aramis, Porthos and Co to fill in the blanks within Quitano’s script – hell, I think I spent more time comparing them to the ’93 version than I did enjoying them on their own merits here! Thankfully, with the films length keeping me from actually thinking about what these people were doing and saying in any realistic context, I probably felt more positively about The Musketeer than I should have.
The cast all do as good a job as they can under what must have been trying circumstances. Chambers, as the lead, is charming and gorgeous, and his chemistry with Suvari is actually pretty engaging, even though Suvari looks like a Southern Californian Babe thrown into the wrong film each time she appears on screen. Suvari is crippled by a dearth of decent lines, and the ones she does have are truly awful. Francesca is the Token Female love interest, and while I can understand the need to have something for the female viewers to enjoy, the lack of depth to this “relationship” undermines an already precariously shallow story even further. Tim Roth, as the villain Febre, chews scenery like nobody else, and he’s easily the best thing about this entire film. He’s dark, snarky and delicious to watch, although as far as character development goes, the note I made to my wife while watching this was that his character never seems happy unless he’s killing somebody every three or four minutes. And that’s how the film plays out – Roth shows up in a scene, somebody is killed, and he leaves again, scowling and snarling his delivery with the syrupy delivery of the finest British acting fraternity.
Stephen Rea, as the Cardinal, has less impact than he probably should have, and it’s a shame he’s given so little to do – considering the role his character has in the narrative of the film, you’d think he’d be given a bigger part of the denouement, as it were. Jean-Pierre Casataldi is watchable as D’Artagnan’s mentor and father-figure, while Catherine Deneuve is utterly wasted as The Queen – her part in this film is limited in both quality and quantity, and it’s as much an extended cameo as it is an actual role. Hyams had all these truly talented actors, and with the exception of Roth, pretty much wasted them.
You get the sense the film is going to suck almost from the opening moments. Young D’Artagnan’s life changing moment comes early, followed by the opening credits; credits which look for all the world like a poorly rendered effect in Photoshop… I don’t think I’ve seen worse produced opening credits to any film I’ve seen, and that’s saying something. The settings are all well produced, however, with the large-scale design of the locations and interiors doing justice to the period and places. The final battle sequence, which I must admit is horribly edited and shot, takes place entirely in the driving rain and in the dead of night – which probably works to Hyams’ visual penchant but not to the realms of logic and a coherent narrative. Hyams’ terrific cinematography is hard to take much of the time, given that we want to see what’s going on, instead of having to peer into the darkness to make things out. Perhaps the lighting Hymans’ used was as realistic as they had in 17th Century France, but it makes the film hard to watch. Lighting and shadow is a primary methodology for Hyams, and often faces and features are cast in a deathly darkness, limiting the visual impact when things are supposed to be going on. Admittedly, perhaps it was the DVD I was watching, and some suspect compression issues, but the film’s starkly lit use of color, shadow and light inhibit – rather than work for – the film overall.
I know I’ve probably written far more than this film is actually worth, but it’s a notably prescient entry into Musketeer history that Hyams’ film remains a mystefyingly discordant effort. You can see what Hyams and his team were trying to achieve, but through either lack of care, lack of time, or simply lack of imagination where it counted, the end result is a hodgepodge of stupid dialogue, hackneyed characters and some obscenely out-of-place action sequences. The editing is choppy and hard to follow throughout many of the action sequences, and the superhuman powers D’Artagnan seems to possess when he picks up a sword feels like he belongs in an outright fantasy film instead of a quasi-serious one – which this film is. The Musketeer isn’t a great film – I’ve said it before, and I say it again now. There’s so much missed opportunity and wasted talent on this one, it’s nearly criminal. While it’s probably worth a look just to see an early Chambers role, and also for Tim Roth’s spitfire portrayal of Febre, the rest of The Musketeer is a miscalculated debacle of the first order.