Little Action and Throwaway Story
Early on in The Musketeer, a man witnesses the skills of the hero D'Artagnan. He swordfights with about five people at once, then jumps on top of rolling barrels to continue the fight, then defies gravity while rolling upside-down on the ceiling by holding on to the rafters. After the battle, the witness asks, "Where did you learn your skills?" D'Artagnan answers, "Here and there." The man replies that it looks more like "there" than "here." And that pretty much sums up the purpose for this movie's existence: to bring in the acrobatic Hong Kong-style fight choreography made popular by The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Jet Li flicks and apply them to the setting of Dumas' oft-told tale of "The Three Musketeers."
The film the movie-makers have presented its audience with has major problems, though, not the least of which is the boring and meandering script which would supposedly underpin the stunt scenes. This would be the tale of D'Artagnan, the man who would journey to Paris to become a Musketeer and who would meet and befriend The Three Musketeers: Aramis, Athos, and Porthos. This is a story that has now been filmed countless times, so to tell it again would require a new perspective to go alongside the new action. The perspective chosen is quite disagreeable, in my opinion: to focus entirely on the one hero, D'Artagnan (Justin Chambers), instead of the team of heroes as comprised of The Three Musketeers and D'artagnan. The Three Musketeers are in it, but they don't really get to do all that much, disappear for most of the last half of the movie, and have their skills entirely shown up by D'Artagnan's. Meanwhile, following D'Artagnan around is like running down the list of movie cliches. He is hunting down an evil nemesis; he has a goofy but steadfast mentor; he falls in love with a chambermaid; and he has to convince his friends to fight fights that are worth fighting.
Worst of all, all the set-up and explanations, with the political mumbo-jumbo about France, its king, its queen, and the machinations of the evil Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea), are tossed aside halfway through the movie when the real main villain decides to take over: the cardinal's top goon Febre (Tim Roth). After all, the true motivation for D'Artagnan's stirring things up is to avenge his parents' slayings by Febre, so naturally Febre has to turn up the evil at some point to bring the focus all on him. When this villain decides to do this, it's as if the movie is conceding that the original backdrop for "The Three Musketeers" story is really all just window dressing here. What it all comes down to is the one good guy vs. the one bad guy. Did we really need the story of "The Three Musketeers" for this?
Now I can hear some people saying, "Who cares about the story? This movie's about the stunts and the fighting." And that brings the sad realization that there really wasn't much action in the movie at all. The stunt scenes are sandwiched between expository passages that are much too long for the average action fan. In the end, there are really only two major action sequences: one involving a carriage through the woods, and the end sequence. Most of the early action feels forced; you can feel the choreography in the fights. The choreographer, Hong Kong's Xin Xin Xiong, put together some interesting sequences, but they don't feel spontaneous enough. Only the final battle among the falling ladders has any real sense of on-the-spot fun to it.
There are also a lot of technical issues to pick at in the movie. The cinematography is dull, dark, and murky all the way through and is terribly unpleasing. The screenplay has little wit to offer, concentrating mostly on cheesy hero-and-villain lines. Scenes cut in and out quickly, often to move from one insignificant story point to another. The heroic music is overdone and distracting. And the director, Peter Hyams (also the cinematographer), noticeably uses the close-up too much.
Poor technique, however, is merely the insult to the injury of a throwaway story being used, as some critics would say, to "clothesline" a few action sequences, the total number of which you could count on one hand. In hindsight, putting Hong Kong fight choreography in to the Musketeer world sounded like a novel concept but in actuality the two mix together as well as water and oil. The action focused on Raiders of the Lost Ark-type stunts, like making one's way under a moving vehicle, and crazy battles involving warding off attackers while using ropes to scale a tower, but almost not at all on swashbuckling swordplay. In fact, the swordplay, which is what makes the older Musketeer-type movies fun, is mostly fast and blurry here, and actually not entertaining. One gets the feeling that there was the potential for a much better movie here, maybe even a decent one, but perhaps the real realization is that there was never really a movie to be had here to begin with.
©Jeffrey Chen, Sep. 9, 2001
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)