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Chan borrows from Raiders

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The Count of Monte Cristo is a schizophrenic film. A dark and serious intrigue becomes a light and colorful adventure. A tiny apologetic moral at the end completely confuses the film’s tone.

And yet the adventure in the middle works so well that The Count of Monte Cristo still deserves a recommendation. Who would have thought that Kevin Reynolds, director of such duds as Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves would finally get the formula right?

Poor Edmond

Richard Harris brings life and color to Monte CristoSet in 19th century France, Monte Cristo is the story of two best friends: one poor, one born to wealth and privilege. Together they survived the British patrols of the forbidden island of Elba, the prison exile of Napoleon Bonaparte.

They have just arrived home and their old friend Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) is there to greet them. Although she likes both men, she loves the poor boy Edmond (Jim Caviezel).

Fernand (Guy Pearce) has a jealous streak, and it’s aggravated by the success of his less-noble friend. First Napoleon entrusted Edmond with a secret letter on Elba, and now Mercedes is choosing him instead. The poor bastard gets all the breaks, and that isn’t fair.

Well, not all the breaks. Edmond is arrested for carrying Napoleon’s letter. The letter contained seditious information for Napoleon’s secret followers, but Edmond is such a naive goof that he really thought he was doing an innocent favor.

Edmond is locked up on a remote island where political prisoners are kept. He is an innocent man devastated by events he doesn’t even understand.

Add Color and Life

The movie changes tone when Edmond meets his fellow prisoner, “Priest” (Richard Harris). Until now the film has been a flat and dark tale of espionage. Harris brings life, color, and humor to the screen.

Priest has been tunneling for years, but he made a wrong turn a few years back. He enlists Edmond’s help to start tunneling again, this time in the right direction. Along the way, Priest teaches Edmond to read, write, and think, honing his logic and deduction.

Naive Edmond finally realizes, with Priest’s help, what must have happened to land him in this godforsaken prison. Fernand must have betrayed him! Edmond’s anger is cooled by years in prison, giving him plenty of time to plot the perfect revenge.

Years later, Edmond does escape. He makes friends with pirates and scoundrels, and with their help he builds wealth. He becomes so wealthy he can even pass as a count. With the political and financial power of a landed gentleman, Edmond (now the “Count” of Monte Cristo) returns to France, able to carry out his elaborate and satisfying revenge on Fernand.

Taking Pleasure in Revenge

Had Monte Cristo not taken its comic turn, I would have hated this film. There is nothing more off-putting than self-righteous slaughter. The Count even acknowledges his dark motives when Mercedes tries to dissuade him from his plot. “Don’t rob me of my hate,” he says, “it’s all I have.”

But Reynolds’ idea of revenge — or maybe it exists in Dumas’ original — is more clever, more poetic, and more fitting. A sense of humor and adventure makes revenge palatable. Watching Edmond’s inspired and careful plan unfold is a guilty pleasure. Seeing a villain get his comeuppance in a savored, planned downfall is a vicarious delight.

Coming out Ahead

Of the three leads, only Guy Pearce (Memento) was familiar to me. As Edmond, Caviezel (The Thin Red Line) proved he can lead a film. The character of Edmond changes radically from beginning to end, so although Caviezel isn’t as distinctive-looking as Pearce, his malleability made him just right for the role. Relative-unknown Dominczyk makes the most of a shallow role as Mercedes, as much an object to be won as an actual person.

Some technical and emotional flaws cost the film some respect. One early scene has so much Hollywood smoke that it looks like a mistake. The first half hour is tedious and dry because the film takes itself far too seriously. And as I mentioned before, a tacked-on ending tries to impose a moral that is not supported by the body of the story.

But if you lump it all together, the film comes out ahead. The charm, adventure and vicarious thrill is enough to outweigh any criticism Monte Cristo might draw.

Good for Kevin Reynolds. He’s finally on the right track.