The Three Musketeers plays less like an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ original novel and more like a test drive for a new historical video game. Indeed, it was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, whose career is in part defined by films based on video games (Mortal Kombat, Alien vs. Predator, the first and third Resident Evil films with another one on the way). It’s not the deviations that bother me; I truly could not care less how unfaithful a film is from its source so long as I’m being entertained. What bothers me is the simple-mindedness with which the story is told. This new The Three Musketeers – with its exaggerated stunt work, silly steampunk special effects, and awful twenty-first century dialogue – is an adequate film for fifteen-year-old gamers who have not seen any previous adaptation, never read the novel, and barely glanced at the CliffNotes.
The film has been shot and released in 3D. Perhaps it depends on the theater, but in my particular case, viewing it that way required a projection filter that dimmed the picture substantially, more so than for any film I’ve seen in 3D. The colors were faded and muddy. The bright scenes looked hazy, as if I was viewing them through a scrim. The dark scenes were just shy of unwatchable. On top of all that, the 3D is itself not all that immersive. If you see it in traditional 2D (and I strongly suggest you do), you may actually appreciate how good the film looks. The costumes are ornate, the sets are opulent, and although inappropriate from a narrative and historical standpoint, the computer graphics are detailed and convincing. If only an effort had been made with the screenplay and some of the casting choices; maybe then the film could have worked as escapist fun, irrespective of the fact that Dumas never conceived of cannon-blasting airships planned by Leonardo Da Vinci, secret passages that open with hidden switches, and concealed vaults booby trapped with darts.
Aspects of the plot should be familiar by now. Taking place in the seventeenth century, we meet the Three Musketeers – Athos (Matthew Macfayden), Porthos (Ray Stevenson), and Aramis (Luke Evans) – a fighting company for the French monarchy. Once the pride of their country, their last mission was a failure, and they were forced to disband. Athos is drunk who, since being betrayed by his lover, doesn’t believe in anything anymore. Porthos is broke and is occasionally slipped some money by wealthy women. Aramis, a clergyman, remains a man of God but has separated himself from the Church. Into their lives enters a young peasant named D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman), who travels to Paris to become a Musketeer, like his father once was. Headstrong and quick-tempered, he isn’t chivalrous so much as cocky, challenging dangerous people to duels. Such a person is Captain Rochefort (Mads Mikkelson), who made the impertinent gesture of insulting D’Artagnan’s horse.
In due time, all four of them become embroiled in a case of international intrigue. It begins with the self-serving Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich), who broke Athos’ heart by double crossing the Musketeers and selling the airship blueprints they stole from Venice to England’s Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). She’s now in league with Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz), who plots to manufacture a war between France and England and take control away from the sniveling, foppish King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox). This will involve stealing a necklace from Louis’ young wife, Queen Anne (Juno Temple). It’s up to the Musketeers and D’Artagnan to retrieve the necklace before France is plunged into chaos.
It’s not so much an issue of plot, although a cannonball fight in the clouds is admittedly ridiculous, as is an impossibly elaborate swordfight on the rooftops and buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s more a matter of dialogue and characterization, which were thoughtlessly handled. Characters like King Louis, with his overplayed eye for fashion and hilariously unconvincing attraction to his wife, is a desperately broad caricature that serves as nothing other than comedy relief. Milady could have been intriguing were it not for the miscasting of Jovovich; she’s not a bad actress, and she certainly looks sexy enough, but she lacks the sophistication (and the accent) necessary for this role. The Musketeers themselves are decent enough, but there’s something off about D’Artagnan, and again, I think it’s a matter of casting. Lerman, fresh-faced though he may be, brings no passion to the role. He comes off as impudent, reckless, and, despite some well-choreographed swordfights, not at all heroic.
During certain action scenes, Anderson relies on a technique that made his previous film, Resident Evil: Afterlife, very annoying. He has specific shots of stunt work play in slow motion, presumably in an effort to make them more dramatic – and, of course, to enhance the 3D process, since they’re often superimposed with images of flying objects, mostly swords. It’s a reasonable idea, but the way he handles it, it comes off as a gimmick. Also consider a shot in which Athos fires a cannonball; the camera follows up close it as it flies through the air; we can even see the fuse sparkling away. Does Anderson really want us to scrutinize these kinds of details? Or is he merely satisfying his desire for mindless action and special effects? Maybe I’m asking for too much, but I believe that even a dumbed-down, revisionist version of The Three Musketeers deserves more than that.