Film Review: The Three Musketeers (2011)

When I first stumbled over the previews for this 2011 Summit Entertainment release, I got the goose bumps. I mean, who wouldn’t? A timeless tale, swashbuckling heroes, stunning cinematography and Matthew McFadyen, Orlando Bloom, and their other manly men co-stars all rolled into one. How can you go wrong with that? I found myself counting the days until its release date. Then, I promptly forgot all about it. Only last week did I realize that T3M had been released on DVD, and so, of course, I picked it up from Red Box.

The cast: Matthew McFadyen (Pride & Prejudice, Little Dorrit) plays Athos, the high-minded leader of the band, with a tormented past. Milla Jovovich (The 5th Element) plays the evil seductress without a soul. Luke Evans (Clash of the Titans) plays Aramis, the ambitious cleric soldier discontented with his lot, and Ray Stevenson (Return of the Native) plays Porthos, the muscle-bound giant with a heart, as well as a taste for finery and women who can afford it. Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson & the Olympians) plays young D’Artagnon.

Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean, Elizabeth Town, Return of the King) plays Buckingham, the British nobleman bent on war with France. Christopher Waltz play Richelieu, the power behind the French throne, and Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) plays his evil henchman.  Freddie Fox is Louis XIII, Juno Temple takes on Anne of Austria, and Gabriella Wilde plays Constance, the queen’s maid of honor and D’Artagnon’s love interest.  

The casting director hit a slam-dunk.  Tthe custom designer produced a masterpiece.  He refused to conceal that carefully considered palette of  hunkiliciousness under layers of hair, leather and feathers.  No blaring blue tabards and huge floppy hats for our heroes.  Only luscious, fitted textures, manly colors and strong chiseled looks. 


The plot:  D’Artagnon, hotheaded and egotistical young country bumpkin with some basis for his pride, sets out for Paris to join the King’s Musketeers, as his father had before him.  He gets into a fight with Rochefort before he ever gets to Paris, then sets up duels with Athos, Aramis and Porthos in quick succession as soon as he gets there.  Of course, out of admiration for the lad, the musketeers become his mentors rather than his murderers.  They decide to take on Rochefort’s goons instead.

Cardinal Richelieu, the king’s prime minister who runs everything, plots to bring France into war with England, destabilize the throne, and make himself king, with the help of “milady”, Lady DeWinter, a sexy double-agent assassin.  Together, they frame the queen, cause the young love-sick king to question his wife’s fidelity, and plant the queen’s jewels in “Buckingham’s” palace (he Tower of London).  It is up to D’Artagnon and friends to retrieve the queen’s jewels before the big ball when the king expects to see her wear them, and restore her honor.  It is up to Rochefort to prevent that from happening.

Throw in some skullduggery in Venice to introduce our three title characters, a bit of Leonardo DaVinci to explain the “period” advanced technology, a bitter rivalry between Buckingham and Louis XIII over Anne of Austria, and you have yourself a movie . . . or a timeless book.

T3M is rated PG-13 for (I assume) action sequences, i.e., lots of swordplay, brawling, and cannon fire, but they kept the blood spurting to a minimum.  No salacious content, "mature themes", gratuitous nudity, nor the single obligatory F-bomb dropped ad hoc merely to avoid the PG death knell.  Milla Jovovich does drop her skirts to jump off a building, but even then she was more modest than most girls dressed for the prom.  All in all, I found the film refreshingly free of shock value and pandering.

What it is: movie-wise, think, Sherlock Holmes & Pirates of the Caribbean, with a serving of 007 on the side. Raucous, irreverent, defiant of historical authenticity, with likable characters delivering anachronistic dialog with tongue in cheek. Unfortunately, this movie can't decide which it is going to be: a 17th century Sherlock or a French Pirates.

Dumas wrote all these characters bigger than life, and only now with movie swordplay eschewing simply fencing and embracing full contact, and directors and stuntmen pushing the limits of what can be done on film, is it really possible to convey the feats he gives his characters. Director Paul Anderson keeps the action explosive and the combat bracing and captures that sensibility.   The ultimate fight scene on the ridgetop of Notre Dame is classic and inventive both at once.

When I was a child, there was an unwritten law in American cinema, that when a movie was set in a foreign country where English was not spoken, all accents must be British. Snooty British. I grew up believing that Nazis spoke like they were born and bred in Kensington.  T3M isn’t the first to fly in the face of that convention, and I often find it refreshing.  Unfortunately, it’s not just about how they say something.   It’s about what they say.

Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies put words in the mouths of their characters that should set the tone of the movie, but, all they do is come off as misplaced.  For instance:
Aramis gives D’Artagnon a ticket: D’Artagnon: What’s this for? Aramis: For unlawful equine defecation on a public thoroughfare. D’Artagnon: In French. Aramis: Your horse took a dump on the street. D’Artagnon: You’ve got to be kidding me.
D’Artagnon explains why he’s in Paris: Athos: There are no more musketeers. D’Artagnon: Why not? Athos: Cutbacks, down-sizing, take your pick.
Richelieu offers the miscreants places amongst his guards: Athos: I’m a drunk. Aramis: I have a job. Porthos: I’m independently wealthy.  Richelieu:  One day you’ll regret those worse.  D’Artagnon:  Perhaps.  But not today.

It’s as if the script wants to be flippant, with a sly wink at the audience, but it teases the audience right to the edge, then turns around and walks away. The closest anyone comes is Orlando bloom, in his portrayal of charismatic Buckingham, with his outrageous pompadour, his killer fashion sense, and his relentless needling of both Louis and Athos.  I can see him reading the script, saying, what am I supposed to do with this?  and then deciding to go for broke and make it into something memorable.

It feels like the writers and directors are at odds with one another and the actors are caught in the middle.  The writers thought they were writing Robin Hood:  Men in Tights, but forgot to tell Anderson about it.  Neither one thought it necessary to enlighten the actors.  Bloom got there all on his own.

What it isn’t:  Gripping,  suspenseful, heartrending, or engrossing.  Even the romance between D’Artagnon and Constance is tepid.  They gave too much away at the very beginning and so completely destroyed the tragic mystery in Athos’ character.  

They take the evil out of Rochefort, the angst out of Aramis, the passion out of everything.  Richelieu becomes a grasping but bored CEO, rather than a sinister wolf in cleric’s clothing let loose amongst the babes.  Tim Curry did a much better job in the role.  Athos is nothing more than a drunk unlucky in love, rather than a tormented soul with a past he would rather forget and a future he looks on with abhorrence. 

Milady should be a dangerous seductress nearly impossible to resist with poison-tipped claws ready to scratch.  Instead, she comes across as just one of the guys who “gets a better offer”.  Even her should-have-been emotionally wrought exit leaves you thinking “and so . . . ?”  You can’t even get worked up enough to cheer.  Milla Javovich was robbed of a delicious opportunity with this script.  She could have been the quintessential Lady DeWinter if she had been given something to work with.  The same can be said for Matthew McFadyen and the role of Athos.

Louis XIII and Anne of Austria do better with their budding teenage romance, as their parts aren’t at all ambiguous.  Likewise, cocky and arrogant translates to any age, and Leman as D’Artagnon pulls it off quite well.  Not all D’Artagnons are cast as young, green, and wide-eyed, which is one thing they got right in this instance.  Constance is just another pretty face.  But then again, most of Dumas’ women are.

The dialog fights against the gorgeous and authentic sets and costumes, and neither make up for the lack of substance throughout the film.  The same can be said regarding the special and visual effects.  If one is  willing to suspend disbelief and embrace the zip lines, trip wires, and high-tech renaissance vaults with steps dropping down into marble floors, one certainly can swallow the air ship dirigibles cruising along, suspended by balloons no larger than the massive timber they’re meant to float.  Again, Dumas wrote larger than life, so it’s easy just to go with it.  However, the vacillating script and the confused actors trip us up.

Bottom line:  Not bad to rent, but probably won’t buy the Blu-ray.

More about Dumas, Hollywood & The Three Musketeers

Let’s face it. Alexandre Dumas wrote a hit. A mega-hit—by today’s standards, at any rate. Had he been a contemporary author and received royalties for every movie based or derived from his series of books, he probably would be on the order of JK Rowling, as would Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Leonard Tolstoy and a few other 19th century writers who really knew how to spin a yarn. But, he wasn’t, and (as did his contemporaries) he made enough to get by, like most authors living or dead.

Like Dumas’ other writings, the beauty of The Three Musketeers is he provides a wealth of material to draw from. In truth, D’Artagnon & company retrieving the queen’s jewels from Buckingham is only a small, almost inconsequential thread of the original book. But, it’s swashbuckling, easily capsulized and dramatized, so it gets the bulk of the attention of script writers. Ever since it was penned, the boards in music and in prose, as long as they’ve been making movies, they have been producing The Three Musketeers.

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Everyone does The Three Musketeers.  And I do mean everyone!

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Memory is a funny thing.  When I watched Disney’s 1993 version with Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen, I found it somewhat light, compared to the Three Musketeers of my childhood which I thought definitive.  Ha!  Going back, I couldn’t make myself sit through ten minutes of the thing.   Of course,  the version by 20th Century Fox came out in 1973, when I was ten years old.  Maybe that explains it.

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I think the frenetic, action-packed, barely-pause-to-catch-your-breath pace of action/adventure movies made today make watching pre-MTV movies seem . . . tortuous.  Compare Quantum of Solace to Moonraker.  Okay.  It’s definitely not fair to compare Roger Moore to Daniel Craig, but I digress.

Andrew Davies  has a list as long as his arm of of literary adaptations for film and TV, and I haven’t seen one of them that have left me dissatisfied.  He does a wonderful job picking out nuances of a book, and that influence can be seen here.
For instance, D’Artagnon’s laughable horse, Buttercup, about which he is understandably sensitive makes her appearance and serves as she should.  They twist around the Anne-Louis-Buckingham triangle, but leave its essence, Louis jealous of Buckingham and Anne caught in the middle.

He also did a good job (which others have not) balancing the plot between D’Artagnon and his mentors as the book does. It’s not “D’Artangnon and the Three Musketeers”. Dumas very much writes about the title characters. D’Artagnon is the means of getting to know these complex, intriguing characters with shady pasts and strong passions.

What I found interesting was his inclusion of Planchet which I haven’t recalled in other films I have seen—at least in a part of any substance.  Dumas actually wrote four manservants into his books, one for each musketeer and D’Artagnon.  In the book, rather than four horsemen riding wild to Calais,  eight set out from Paris, and along the way various clashes and ambuscades took down one or two here and there until only D’Artagnon actually made it onto the ship for bound for England.  They all made it back to Paris, of course, sooner or later.

In the series, two of those four servants outlive our then four musketeers, Planchet being the foremost.  Through thrift and enterprise, he ends his life as landed gentry which is rather satisfying, especially because he gradually becomes essential to D’Artagnon’s success.  It’s nice to see that character in the movies and given a comedic part as he should.

The_Man_in_the_Iron_Mask Strictly speaking of The Three Musketeers films specifically, I’d have to chose Disney’s 1993 version over anything else. However, for overall best portrayal of Dumas’ characters, I have to go with MGM’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
Here, the aging musketeers come out of retirement not to depose a tyrannical king who is certain to destroy France, but to replace him with his twin brother who was whisked away and imprisoned out of sight at the very hour of his birth.

They flip the plot on its head—in the film, D'Artagnon helps rather than foils Aramis’ plot to replace the evil, self-absorbed king with his noble and humane brother— but I think France would have sent Dumas to the guillotine had he made Louis XIV, the Sun King, into the illegitimate son of the common soldier, and a Gascon at that. 

It makes great cinema, though.  In the film, as captain of the king’s guard, D’Artagnon pines his life away for the dowager queen, unaccountably loyal to a tyrannical king, as the anonymous father attempting to guide his willful son into becoming a just and compassionate ruler.

With John Malcovich as Athos, Jeremy Irons as Aramis, Gabriel Byrne as D’Artagnon, and GĂ©rard Depardieu as Porthos, they couldn’t have assembled a more ideal cast.  Every character is as intensely complex as Dumas penned them, the acting does the script justice, and Leonardo DiCaprio strikes a convincing duality in the twin roles of King Louis XIV of France, and his fictitious brother, Philippe. 

Final Word:  This DVD I own.

—A Chaotic Mind

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