The Musketeer
directed by Peter Hyams
(Universal Pictures, 2001)

Seasoned director Peter Hyams hoped to attract audiences to The Musketeer, yet another version of the Alexandre Dumas classic adventure yarn set in 17th-century France, by cashing in on the latest craze in the West for Hong Kong-style martial arts. He does this by hiring Xiong Xin Xin, a luminary from that venerable source of Asian action cinema choreography, to add an Eastern flair to the fight scenes. The resulting mix does add a certain acrobatic zest to the main swashbuckling sequences: in a tavern, when a speeding coach gets attacked by several horsemen (the best by far) and at the climactic confrontation in a castle (spoiled by lapse in logic when the hero fends off henchmen while dangling from a rope when they could have simply cut the cord and ended it right there). The ultimate showdown scene in a storeroom full of ladders on which the hero and lead villain precariously balance while dueling (a homage to Once Upon a Time in China 2), while exciting, in truth pales when compared to the original.

The Musketeer's plot, while differing significantly from the original, nevertheless holds interest. It centers on D'Artagnan (Justin Chambers), who has been trained by his older guardian Planchet (Jean-Pierre Castalli) to become one of the King's elite guards, a Musketeer, thus following in the footsteps of his father. D'Artagnan also wishes to avenge the murder of his parents, killed 14 years before by the lead villain Febre (Tim Roth). The protagonist, accompanied by Planchet, journeys to Paris where he hopes to meet his father's former colleague Treville (Michael Byrne), an aged Musketeer. D'Artagnan finds the elite guards now in disarray, a lamentable situation that can be blamed on Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea) usurping power from King Louis XIII (Daniel Mesguich) and the Queen (Catherine Deneuve), who have employed Febre in the role of chief enforcer. Febre had Treville imprisoned for a murder he did not commit.

Eventually, D'Artagnan teams up with the younger musketeers Aramis (Nick Moran), Porthos (Steve Speirs) and Athos (Jan Gregor Kremp), willing to follow the hero because his skill and zeal impresses them. The protagonist also finds a romantic interest, Francesca (Mena Suvari), a feisty chambermaid who by fortunate happenstance knows the queen, thanks to her mother previously serving as royal seamstress and confidante. D'artagnan, despite the odds, goes forth to rescue Treville and manages to rally his fellow musketeers to protect the king and queen from the cardinal's schemes while never losing sight of his goal to avenge the death of his parents.

Along the way to the inevitable triumphant conclusion, The Musketeer offers enough dazzle to please in its spectacular scenic locations, costumes, sets and swashbuckling action (although the obvious use of stunt doubles should be noted), and some fun scenes in sewers and in the palace kitchens stand out. David Arnold provides a suitably lush, symphonic score to enhance the proceedings.

The star performer, while appropriately young and handsome, lacks the charisma to carry such a major heroic role. The supporting cast makes up for this although Athos, Porthos and Aramis deserved larger roles rather than being relegated to the background. Rea made an excellent humanized Cardinal Richelieu while Suvari and Deneuve charmed with their portrayals of strong gutsy women. Roth, doing his turn in yet another delightfully evil, scenery-chewing villainous role clad in snazzy 17th-century-style black leather, stole the show and he definitely contributes to making The Musketeer worth seeing despite its flaws.

Die-hard fans of swashbucklers should go to this movie to get their fix while being aware that Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly, among others, already did Dumas much earlier, more faithfully to the original novel and better.

by Amy Harlib
15 September 2001

Somehow I knew, when filmmakers changed the title from D'Artagnan to The Musketeer, the product would suffer. Filmmakers obviously knew they were playing to a crowd too obtuse to recognize the name of the hero from The Three Musketeers.

This version of the swashbuckling French legend takes itself a bit more seriously than others I've seen, locking in its dramatic perspective from the first scene when young D'Artagnan is given the same motivation that turned a young Bruce Wayne into the Batman.

Where other versions of the tale have portrayed the musketeers as superb swordsmen, this one crosses the line into superheroics. While less believable, it's certainly good eye candy for those fond of the recent influx of martial arts-driven action films.

But eye candy is about all it gives us. The movie fails to compare to the classic 1973 version for sheer storytelling, and it pales even to the 1993 Disney version for comedy.

There are attempts at humorous dialogue, sure, but they fall flat here -- this version just isn't set up for laughs. Wounds disappear without cause. Swords reappear without explanation. And a host of swordsmen stupidly swing down on ropes to battle their tower-scaling foe when it would have been much easier just to cut his rope and watch him fall from the safety of the ramparts.

Performances are almost uniformly flat. D'Artagnan (Justin Chambers) never makes much of an impression as either an action hero or a romantic leading man. The three musketeers -- Athos, Aramis and Porthos (Jan Gregor Kremp, Nick Moran and Steve Speirs) -- lack depth; they've been reduced to background figures in a story once named for them. Cardinal Richelieu (a sleepy-looking Stephen Rea) lacks malice and deviousness, falling quickly under the thumb of his own henchman. And I fear Tim Roth has played so many ruthlessly evil characters that even his one-eyed Febre seems, if not dull, at least unoriginal.

It is, perhaps, a blow for equal rights, but for the era being portrayed, neither the queen (Catherine Deneuve) nor D'Artagnan's love interest, Francesca (Mena Suvari) rings true. Accents are mixed. The pacing is awkward. And a climactic duel on ladders -- intended, no doubt, to be a visual tour de force -- just looks ridiculous.

When stories are retold and movies are remade, I hope for something better than what came before. Unfortunately, things rarely work out that way, and this Musketeer is a poor imitation -- nice to look at, but lacking substance.

by Tom Knapp
7 December 2002

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