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A Warhorse Rides Again

The Count of Monte Cristo's back. Is there enough life left in him for the latest remake?

January 24, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly a century ago, moviegoers flocked to the nickelodeons to see a one-reel adaptation of "The Count of Monte Cristo," Alexandre Dumas' classic 19th century revenge story. Five years later, in 1912, the legendary actor James O'Neill, father of playwright Eugene O'Neill, starred in the first feature-length version of the legendary swashbuckling tale. In 1934, Robert Donat headlined the exciting Hollywood production that scored a bull's-eye with critics and audiences.

Over the years, producers have frequently returned to the "Monte Cristo" well. Richard Chamberlain and Gerard Depardieu starred in well-received TV versions, and even George Dolenz, father of the Monkees' Micky Dolenz, starred in a '50s TV series.

Touchstone Pictures has dusted off the old warhorse one more time. This time around, Jim Caviezel ("Angel Eyes," "Pay It Forward") plays Dumas' hero, Edmund Dantes, an honest, God-fearing sailor who is planning to marry the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). However, the trusting Dantes is betrayed by his best friend, the rich and spoiled Fernand (Guy Pearce), who wants Mercedes for himself. Fernand reports to the French authorities that Dantes is a traitor to the French monarchy, and the young man is sentenced to the infamous island prison of Chateau d'If. During his 13 years in solitary, Dantes becomes consumed with vengeance. With the help of another prisoner, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), he escapes from the prison and transforms himself into the mysterious, dashing and wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. And as Dantes befriends the French nobility, he begins to destroy all the men who ruined his life.

Kevin Reynolds, who directed the 1991 box office hit "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," directed this edition from a script by Jay Wolpert.

The big question is that in this day and age of the high-flying martial arts fight sequences of "The Matrix," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the current "Brotherhood of the Wolf," will a traditional period action-romance connect with teen audiences?

"I would like to think it will appeal to younger audiences," Reynolds says. "But I don't know, you tell me."

Jonathan Kuntz, visiting professor of American film at UCLA, points out that classic stories such as "Monte Cristo" have appealed to every generation. "It is the very definition of a warhorse. Over and over it has proven itself over many generations. It has had a long life in film, and it's not surprising it will be getting [a new] Hollywood treatment--in color and wide screen, great locales, sets and costumes, and a relatively young cast. You are drawing on something that has an extremely solid, established story and characters that have already proven themselves."

"Look at the films like 'Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring' and 'Star Wars,'" Caviezel says. "Those films have taken stuff out of this book. It was way out of this time."

"The Count of Monte Cristo" is as different as can be from Reynolds' "Robin Hood," which starred Kevin Costner in the title role. The latter was definitely geared for the young crowd that had never seen Douglas Fairbanks' silent classic or Errol Flynn's 1938 "The Adventures of Robin Hood." It was much campier in tone than "Monte Cristo" and featured a hit pop tune sung by Bryan Adams, "(Everything I Do) I Do For You."

"That wasn't my idea," Reynolds says of Adams' hit. Warner Bros., the studio that released "Robin Hood," he says, went for the lowest common denominator when it came to audience appeal.

Adds Kuntz: "'Robin Hood' was completely done for modern audiences, so much so, it kind of lost the medieval spirit about the story."

Although "The Count of Monte Cristo" has PG-13 gore and discreet sex scenes, it is very much in the vein of an old-fashioned swashbuckler. There are no pop tunes peppered throughout the soundtrack. There is no flashy MTV-style editing. And the film is filled with numerous spiritual references and discussions about God and religion.

The religious aspect was a product of Wolpert's script, Reynolds says, and is present in Dumas' book. "In 19th century French literature, everything was much more spiritual," Reynolds says. "God and religion was much more a part of people's lives. I think it was something that Jay sort of accentuated because one of the things we wanted to explore in the character arc was this was a guy who is bent on revenge. But rather than just having the guy bent on revenge, we wanted to explore the notion: Is revenge satisfying? That was one of the aspects I found sort of intriguing about it--to show that this guy can focus himself utterly and completely about wreaking vengeance on the people who did this to him, but is it going to make him whole again? You don't see [this subject discussed] in contemporary movies. But was it a conscious effort on our part to impart some sort of theological thing? No it wasn't. It just felt like it was apropos to the time and the place."

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