THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Count of Monte Cristo is the latest adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' timeless tale of revenge. It has many elements of a great story: a wrongly accused hero, a stunning betrayal, a sweeping romance, and plenty of swordplay. Maybe that's why filmmakers have returned to it time and again. The latest big screen version comes from director Kevin Reynolds, who also helmed Waterworld, 187, and Fandango.

After years of wrongful imprisonment, Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel, right) swears revenge upon the person who landed him there - his onetime friend, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce, left).
Jim Caviezel plays Edmond Dantes, a young sailor who, with best friend Fernand (Guy Pearce), washes up on an island where Napoleon Bonaparte is being held in exile by armed forces. After avoiding getting shot, Dantes is asked by Napoleon to deliver a letter. He agrees to do so, although he is unspeakably naive in thinking the letter has nothing to do with an escape attempt. Fernand sees the exchange of the letter and his jealousy grows; he already covets Edmond's fetching fiancee Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) and now his friend is being asked by France's former leader for help. Upon return to their homeland, Fernand makes an accusation of treason against Edmond with police official Villefort (James Frain), a corrupt man with an agenda all his own. Edmond is ordered to spend the rest of his life at Chateau D'If, an island prison from which escape is seemingly impossible. Meanwhile, Fernand tells Mercedes that Edmond is dead and promptly marries her.

After spending many years being both physically and psychologically tortured at Chateau D'If, Edmond meets another inmate: Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), who has been laboriously digging an escape tunnel underneath the prison. Faria becomes a mentor to Edmond, teaching him swordfighting techniques and other things that might come in very handy to a person who is obsessed with getting revenge. Eventually, Edmond escapes, taking with him his newfound knowledge, as well as information about the location of a massive treasure. He then sets himself up in an enormous castle and dubs himself the Count of Monte Cristo. With a new home, new money, and a new identity, he is ready to get revenge against those who wronged him.

The Count of Monte Cristo is one of those movies where most of the characters who are supposed to be French speak with English accents. In some movies, that might be an annoyance, but in a film like this, it's the essence that counts. Both Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce do an admirable job nailing down the central traits of their characters; Edmond is consumed with the desire for vengeance, while Fernand is slimy and self-serving. While neither performer is a major star, they are both talented actors who give convincing performances.

And what a story they have to work with! Dumas certainly created a plot that is dramatically interesting. How can you not be entertained by a tale in which a "wronged man" assumes a disguise, infiltrates the French class system, and methodically ruins those who have done him wrong?

Be that as it may, The Count of Monte Cristo rates as a near miss, and there are two reasons why. First, although the events themselves are compelling, the pace of the movie sometimes drags. There are moments where we get the idea but the film keeps trying to give it to us anyway. Second - and more importantly - the picture cops out at the end. There are some references to Edmond's conflict with God; he wants revenge but knows it is wrong in the eyes of the Lord. At the end, Edmond comes to realize that revenge serves no good...after the movie has already gone out of its way to show him getting it. It's an unwritten rule in motion pictures that the bad guy has to pay, even if the moral of your story is that vengeance is wrong. If handled a little more subtly, The Count of Monte Cristo might have been able to have its cake and eat it too. By choosing to end with an elaborate, appeal-to-the-action-crowd swordfight, the film undermines its own message.

There were a lot of things I liked about the picture, and in many ways I was entertained by it. The flaws, however, are noticeable enough to take away some of the fun. The bottom line is that this movie is well worth a $3.00 video rental but not necessarily a $7.00 ticket price.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Count of Monte Cristo is rated PG-13 for adventure violence/sword play and some sensuality. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.

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