This umpteenth retelling of the classic Alexandre Dumas adventure story is a handsome but ho-hum swashbuckler that springs to life only during a few spirited scenes of acrobatic swordplay — which may explain why, for the first time in recent memory — maybe for the first time ever — a major studio release is trumpeting its stunt coordinator more than its cast or director in coming-attraction trailers. Hong Kong action vet Xin-Xin Xiong choreographs enough stylized derring-do to generate interest among many of the mainstream ticket buyers who made “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” a crossover smash. Given that and the dearth of similar product in early fall marketplace, “The Musketeer” is poised to grab a respectable share of domestic B.O. coin before galloping off to more fertile fields in international and homevid venues.
Scripter Gene Quintano takes a revisionist approach to his extremely loose adaptation of Dumas’ much-filmed 1844 novel about 17th century heroics, and establishes motivation for the dashing title character.
A prologue intros the sociopathic baddie Febre (Tim Roth) as he is attempting to extort money from young D’Artagnan’s parents. When he’s rebuffed, Febre kills the couple in front of their horrified child (Max Dolbey), who is knocked unconscious and left for dead.
Flash-forward 14 years: D’Artagnan (played as an adult by Justin Chambers) and his grizzled mentor Planchet (Jean-Pierre Castaldi) journey from Gascogne to Paris; D’Artagnan proves his mettle in the first of the pic’s Hong Kong-flavored fight sequences, as he battles sword-wielding ruffians in a roadside tavern.
Here and elsewhere, however, director-cinematographer Peter Hyams fails to adequately convey the fluidity of movement, or properly frame the determinedly dazzling stunt work, in the manner that is de rigueur for even routine Hong Kong chopsocky pics.
D’Artagnan wants to join the musketeers, the elite guard of King Louis XIII (Daniel Mesguich). But once in Paris, D’Artagnan learns the musketeers have been decommissioned by Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea). Undaunted, our hero forges friendships with musketeer aces Aramis (Nick Moran), Athos (Jan Gregor Kremp) and Porthos (Steve Speirs), and joins in their efforts to free their captain (Michael Byrne) from an unjust imprisonment.
D’Artagnan meanwhile falls for Francesca (Mena Suvari), the beautiful daughter of a dressmaker and close confidant of the queen (Catherine Deneuve).
Eventually, D’Artagnan sets out to avenge his parents and, while he’s at it, save his king and country — with, of course, a little help from the musketeers.
Xiong coordinated stunts for Tsui Hark’s “Time and Tide” and “Double Team,” but his chief inspiration for “The Musketeer” appears to have been Hark’s “Once Upon a Time in China” franchise (which employed Xiong as a supporting player). A climactic battle between D’Artagnan and Febre in a room filled with ladders is straight out of the first “China” epic, and other sequences have everything but a cameo by Jet Li to underscore what Xiong has borrowed from his source material.
Trouble is, the fight scenes are almost too impressive for the pic’s own good: just about everything else in seems bland and generic. Any new version of the Dumas masterwork is hard-pressed to top Richard Lester’s definitive two-part epic (“The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers”). But Hyams’ version isn’t even as lively or involving as the 1993 youth-skewing remake.
Chambers is little more than an attractive cipher in the lead role. But, then again, he doesn’t get much help from the charisma-free co-stars cast as musketeers. Don Ameche was better off with the Ritz Brothers as backup when he essayed D’Artagnan for helmer Allan Dwan back in 1939.
Among the supporting players, Deneuve is notable primarily because it’s hard to recall the last time she was so unflatteringly lighted and photographed. Rea looks grim throughout, as though he feared his obviously fake beard might slip at any moment. Suvari is an appealing screen presence, which is all she needs to be here. Roth comes off best by cleverly stopping just short of going over the top with his bemused villainy.
Hyams’ lensing of French locations is, unlike his shooting of the fight scenes, first-rate. Production designer Philip Harrison and costumers Raymond Hughes and Cynthia Dumont do much to augment the 17th century period flavor.