Alexandre Dumas' classic tale of injustice and comeuppance, revenge and redemption, is rousingly retold in "The Count of Monte Cristo," a lavishly mounted and appealingly old-fashioned swashbuckler with nary a trace of wink-wink irony or revisionist embellishment.

Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale of injustice and comeuppance, revenge and redemption, is rousingly retold in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” a lavishly mounted and appealingly old-fashioned swashbuckler with nary a trace of wink-wink irony or revisionist embellishment. With a well-cast Jim Caviezel establishing star credentials in the title role, and a first-rate supporting cast led by Guy Pearce and Richard Harris, pic boasts a compelling human element to complement lively storytelling and sporadic action highlights. Strong cross-generational appeal should ensure good-to-excellent biz during theatrical run and countless rentals when pic resurfaces on homevid.

Scripter Jay Wolpert does an intelligent job of compressing and reconstituting his source material, remaining faithful to the spirit — and, to a surprising degree, the letter — of Dumas’ original narrative. Wolpert even manages to clarify for contemporary auds the squabbles of opposing political forces in 19th century France in the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s banishment to Elba.

Drama begins as Edmond Dantes (Caviezel), an idealistic young French sailor, leads a boatload of companions to Elba in search of medical help for their ship’s captain. Unfortunately, the captain dies. Even more unfortunately, Dantes naively accepts a message from Bonaparte (an authoritative cameo by Alex Norton) to deliver to one of the banished emperor’s friends back in France.

Once home, Dantes resumes his romance with the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). But Dantes’ best buddy, Fernand Mondego (Pearce), a moneyed and amoral libertine, also desires the fair maiden. And he’s not the kind of guy who lets friendship get in the way.

With the eager assistance of Villefort (James Frain), a magistrate desperate to hide his father’s inconvenient allegiance to Napoleon, and Danglars (Albie Woodington), a veteran first mate with long-standing grievances against our hero, Mondego arranges for Dantes to be arrested for trying to deliver the message from Elba.

Dantes is summarily shipped off to Chateau D’If, a hellish island prison where the sadistic warden (Michael Wincott) celebrates the anniversary of each prisoner’s arrival with a brutal flogging. Dantes endures 13 such whippings before Abbe Faria (Harris), a long-imprisoned solider-turned-cleric, mistakenly burrows into Dantes’ cell while attempting to escape. As the two men forge strong bonds during long months of tunneling, Faria teaches Dantes how to handle a sword and where to find a long-hidden treasure.

After making his escape, briefly joining a band of pirates, and earning the unstinting loyalty of Jacopo (Luis Guzman), a comic-relief cutthroat who becomes his faithful companion, Dantes follows Faria’s directions to the fortune stashed on the island of Monte Cristo. Armed with more money than you can shake a stick at, plus the stick, he returns to France and establishes himself as — yes, you guessed it! — the Count of Monte Cristo.

Disguised with a new identity, he launches a meticulous plot to punish his betrayers. And he’s all the more eager to mete out rough justice when he discovers that Mercedes, thinking him dead, married Mondego.

Helmer Kevin Reynolds has previously tried his hand at larger-than-life adventure stories — “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Waterworld” — with wildly uneven results. With “Count of Monte Cristo,” however, he proves to be fully on top of his game, infusing the grandly melodramatic permutations of the plot with firm conviction and stylish gusto.

Under Reynolds’ direction, Caviezel offers a galvanizing performance as a guileless innocent who must evolve into a remorseless avenger before finding peace and contentment. Pearce effectively underplays in a role rife with opportunities for scenery-chewing, and Harris makes his every onscreen moment count as a font of hard-won wisdom. Dominczyk doesn’t appear to age a day, but she’s otherwise credible as a sympathetic pawn in a deadly game.

Even when it comes to shading the dead-serious adventure with darkly comical touches, Reynolds maintains a sure, steady hand. Guzman is richly amusing (and acceptably anachronistic), while Wincott makes a deliciously hissable villain as the warden. But each actor is attuned to the overall tone, and neither pushes too hard. Other supporting players are first-rate.

Tech package is exceptional. Special credit must go to Andrew Dunn’s splendid color lensing of locations in Ireland and Malta as well as Tom Rand’s evocative, subtly character-defining costumes; from the look of Dantes’ Near Eastern-flavored attire after he becomes the mysterious count, aud gets a vivid impression of just how far he traveled while on the winding road toward a final reckoning.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation in association with Spyglass Entertainment of a Birnbaum/Barber production. Produced by Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Jonathan Glickman. Executive producer, Chris Brigham. Co-producers: Derek Evans, Rebekah Rudd, James Flynn, Andrew Somper, Chris Chrisafis. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Screenplay, Jay Wolpert, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Andrew Dunn; editors, Stephen Semel, Chris Womack; music, Edward Shearmur; production designer, Mark Geraghty; supervising art director, Terry Pritchard; art director, Conor Devlin; set decorator, Johnny Byrne; costume designer, Tom Rand; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Peter Joly; assistant director, Bob Huberman; second unit director and camera, Arthur Wooster; casting, Priscilla John (U.K.), Marcia Ross (U.S.). Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e Stadium 23, Houston, Jan. 3, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 131 MIN.

With

Edmond Dantes - Jim Caviezel
Fernand Mondego - Guy Pearce
Mercedes - Dagmara Dominczyk
Abbe Faria - Richard Harris
Jacopo - Luis Guzman
Villefort - James Frain
Albert - Henry Cavill
Danglars - Albie Woodington
Dorleac - Michael Wincott
Napoleon Bonaparte - Alex Norton
Col. Villefort - Freddie Jones
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