|As the phrase "dinner and a movie" indicates, there's been a link between movies and food since they introduced talkies. Hell, why do you think they charge so damn much for concessions at movie theaters? 'Cause movies make you want to eat. And for us, certain movies trigger different cravings. For instance, vampire movies make us want lots of Chinese food; no danger of red sauce whatsoever. Martial-arts movies make us want to eat nothing but salads so that someday, we might be able to do that wack shit like Trinity. (We hear you snickering and are pointedly ignoring you.) After Count of Monte Cristo, we had ourselves a big ol' bowl of macaroni and cheese from a box. It was a kind of tribute to the serviceable, adequate movie we had just seen: satisfying, but not particularly delectable or nourishing.
This is the umpteenth film retelling of Alexandre Dumas' four-inch-thick classic pulp novel, so the plot should be pretty familiar, right? No? Okay: in post-Napoleonic France, naif sailor Edmond Dantes takes the fall for a greedy captain, a lustful count and a corrupt magistrate. He's sent to prison for 13 years, where he meets a priest who helps him escape and gives him a treasure map. Once out, he gets the treasure, reinvents himself as the Count of Monte Cristo and wreaks revenge on the men who ruined his life. It's great stuff, which explains its cinematic popularity.
Of course, this time around, the script is by Jay Wolper, whose claim to fame is creating game shows and "reality programming." Not exactly the resume that comes to mind when it's time to interpret the classics, is it? And Wolper delivers on that ominous promise by dumbing down the source material and adding a couple of unnecessary touches, such as making Dumas and the count best friends. The conceit that Dumas (Jim Caveziel) and Count Mondego (Guy Pearce) were both freshmen at La Petite Academy and remained close makes no sense considering their vast class differences---and what a first-rate asswipe Mondego is. Had he been in our class, a recess-yard beatdown would have been in order from day one.
But no, Dumas walks through the first part of the movie with an enormous, unseen "kick me" sign on him: he always does The Right Thing, he trusts people way too easily, he believes in the fairness of the legal system and worst of all, he has a gorgeous fiancee. It's almost a relief when he gets sent to the Chateau d'If prison and the guided tour of hell starts, not only because the character's naivete gets old but because Caveziel doesn't convey Dantes' initial happy-go-lucky spirit particularly well. Once the torment begins, however, he's in fine form; his face and eyes look like something out of a Goya painting and his voice is flush with despair. Ahhh, that's more like it.
The prison sequences are the high point of the movie, and not just for Caveziel's transformation. We meet the film's two most interesting characters "on the inside," the wise old priest (Richard Harris) who saves most of Dantes' sanity and the sadistic warden (Michael Wincott) who regularly whips men he knows are innocent. While Wincott gives the movie its first, much-needed breath of comedy, Harris gives it a soul. His Abbe Faria is delightful, and Harris brightens every scene he's in.
Once out of prison, the juicy revenge stuff begins, but it's pretty perfunctory. Any moral ambiguity the novel had has been sanitized for your protection. Dantes does some pretty despicable things to his triumvirate of betrayers, but still manages to keep the moral high ground, largely because these three stooges are over-the-top despicable themselves. Mondego in particular does everything but twirl his mustache and change his name to Count Whiplash; he even looks rotted-through. Ultimately, revenge is portrayed not as the empty victory that it truly is, but as a kind of high-five from God. Which is even creepier than Guy Pearce's teeth.
Count of Monte Cristo isn't really a bad movie: there are a few great performances, the plot is interesting and the sword-fights are good fun. But it isn't really a good movie either: much of the comedy feels far too modern, the script is wooden and you wish someone would light a couple more candles in almost every scene. It's a pleasant-enough diversion and fun in parts. It gets the job done. Which reminds us: time for seconds of that fluorescent orange mac n' cheese.