With its airborne CGI galleons, 3D format and an armed Milady who hides rappelling equipment beneath her corset, helmer Paul W. S. Anderson’s version of “The Three Musketeers” is a very 2011 take on Alexandre Dumas’ classic that feels weirdly dated already. Although adequately entertaining thanks to lavish production values and game supporting perfs, this anodyne adaptation lacks a killer hook that would help it cross over to a demographic beyond action buffs and fanboys. Canny calendar positioning should help Summit’s October release Stateside, but the pic will swash more buckle overseas, where the title has more cachet. Already open in Germany, “Musketeers” screens Sept. 23 at the San Sebastian Film Festival.
Not too long ago, it looked as though this American-German-French-British co-production would be one of two new 3D adaptations of “Three Musketeers” this year, alongside Warner Bros.’ Doug Liman-helmed version. Whatever the reasons that project was put on hold, one can’t help but wonder if there might have been well-founded doubts about how well Dumas’ 17th century-set tale of chivalry, camaraderie and courtly intrigue could be remixed for contempo auds without diluting it beyond all recognition.
Indeed, the script here struggles to find a balance between the sensibilities of Alex Litvak, best known for writing “Grayskull” and “Predators,” and Andrew Davies, who built his rep on tony literary adaptations for British TV such as “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) and “Little Dorrit” (2008). End product lacks Davies’ signature verbal sparkle Davies, but also sags in the middle, the way a mainstream action film shouldn’t, when it bogs down in all the business about the Queen’s purloined necklace (ironically, the bit closest to Dumas’ novel).
The opening sequence offers a typical example of how far beyond Dumas the filmmakers are willing to go, as the Musketeers, soldiers in the employ of France’s King Louis (Freddie Fox), are introduced on a secret mission to Venice to snatch plans drawn up by Leonardo Da Vinci for an airship. Joining leader Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), enigmatic ex-priest Aramis (Luke Evans) and jovial muscleman Porthos (Ray Stevenson) on this quest is none other than Milady de Winter herself (Milla Jovovich, Anderson’s regular muse), not just a pretty face and a cunning mind, but also a dab hand with a sword and a roundhouse kick.
Unfortunately, Milady betrays them, as she’s secretly in cahoots with Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz, good but somewhat lazily cast as yet another smooth villain). This leaves Athos particularly embittered by the time young, idealistic, Justin Bieber-haired upstart D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) arrives in Paris sometime later from the sticks, keen to become a Musketeer himself.
Richard Lester’s “Three Musketeers” (1973) and “Four Musketeers” (1974) made their own significant departures from the books, as nearly every film version has, but they had a bawdy streak that’s notably lacking in this very teen-skewed PG-13 incarnation. Louis, for example, is a moon-faced kid basically suffering from a crush on his own wife (Juno Temple, a delight as usual), while D’Artagnan gives him brotherly dating advice. Orlando Bloom plays the Duke of Buckingham like a rival jock from another school, sneering over Louis’ out-of-fashion duds. For an action film, there’s an awful lot of foppish discussion about clothes going on.
But what glorious clothes they are. Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s exquisitely detailed outfits steal scene after scene, in particular the women’s gowns, all intricate silk brocades shot through with metallic threads and glinting like jewels. Glen MacPherson’s digital lensing has been balanced in post in such a way to let the electric blues on the king’s guards’ uniforms pop just a bit more intensely, especially in the many bright, sunlit rooms (a mix of Bavarian locations and sets at Berlin’s Studio Babelsberg) deployed for the palace scenes.
The use of 3D rather limits the fluidity of the action sequences, which ought to be Anderson’s strong suit, but it does nothing but favors for Paul Denham Austerberry’s rococo production design.