A humor-bedecked historical romp, “On Guard!” is consistently enjoyable, if rarely exceptional, mass entertainment. Philippe de Broca’s swashbuckling saga of delayed revenge set between 1699 and 1716 provides plum roles for Daniel Auteuil and Fabrice Luchini as, respectively, the versatile hero and delectably hissable villain. This seventh screen adaptation of Paul Feval’s 1857 serialized novel brings to life literary action-adventure codes that are nowadays most often relegated to videogames and animated cartoons. Result is a refreshing bigscreen experience for the young at heart.
Handy with a sword and quick on the uptake, Lagardere (Auteuil), a former street urchin schooled in fencing and circus arts, goes from accepting money to kill the Duke of Nevers (Vincent Perez, in appealing form) to becoming his trusted friend and bodyguard. A dashing, multititled and impressively wealthy bachelor, Nevers has as heir his cousin, the dour and scheming Gonzague (Luchini).
But word comes from afar that Nevers is a father from a tryst with Blanche de Caylus (Claire Nebout). He resolves to marry the mother of his child and raise the heir he assumes must be a son. Seeing an expedient, if messy, shortcut to wealth, greedy Gonzague enlists brigands to slaughter Nevers, Blanche and the child.
A formidable fencer, Nevers is famed for his prodigious “Nevers Thrust,” a flashy, foolproof technique for skewering an opponent smack between the eyes. The secret maneuver is known only to its originator and Lagardere.
Forty-five minutes in, after a valiant battle in which he is fatally stabbed in the back by Gonzague, the dying Nevers entrusts Lagardere with the infant and asks his friend to avenge him, however long it takes.
Lagardere takes refuge with the child — who turns out to be a girl, Aurore — and he and surrogate daughter blend in with an itinerant troupe of Italian actors and puppeteers. Aurore (Marie Gillain) grows up incognito, believing Lagardere is her father. But when the performers hit Paris, some 16 years after Gonzague’s cowardly perfidy, Lagardere at last puts an ingenious revenge plot into motion. The Nevers Thrust makes a sudden resurgence, and an unsuspecting Gonzague hires a new bossu — the hunchback of the title. Intrigue galore ensues.
Auteuil seems a bit long in the tooth at the outset but has no difficulty winning viewers over as the tale progresses. Luchini, famed for his foppish, over-the-top mannerisms, downplays those aspects to arrive at a clever inside-the-walls fiend as unctuous as Tim Roth in “Rob Roy.”
Perez is handsome and gallant, Gillain is plucky and radiant, and the supporting cast clearly has a ball. Costumes (by Christian Gasc, Cesar-winning designer of “Ridicule”), sets, makeup and special effects conspire to create a winning period atmosphere. Rousing clashes — created by Michel Carliez, whose father trained Jean Marais for the 1959 version of “Le bossu” — show inventive fight choreography and some nice stunts.
For better or worse, pic doesn’t have the arty look that screams “Export me!” Although interiors are often lit with painterly care, some exteriors seem washed-out. Buoyant score borrows heavily from classical standards that fit the mood. Sound mix sometimes favors the clang of swords over crisp dialogue