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Thrilling 'Monte Cristo' remains true to book

| Friday, Jan. 25, 2002

The gods of filmmaking must scratch holes into their heads trying to make sense of today's imbalances.

For every film drawn from classic literature, there are 150 dorky comedies such as "Orange County" and 300 fantasies and films about characters with supernatural powers.

And when someone does tap into a classic, it is to engage in revision - either expeditious (the 1998 "Man in the Iron Mask") or outright criminal (the 1995 "The Scarlet Letter"). And then the 1998 "Les Miserables" gets the story and characters right and dies at the box office.

A new adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' 1844-45 "The Count of Monte Cristo," written by Jay Wolpert and directed by Kevin Reynolds, approaches its subject with sufficient fidelity and alacrity to warrant admiration and gratitude.

May it also find an audience.

It spans about two decades, beginning in 1814, when Napoleon Bonaparte (Alex Norton) is exiled in Elba, off the coast of Italy.

When the honorable, illiterate Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel, sounding remarkably like John Malkovich) lands in Elba with a dying captain, he agrees to accept from Napoleon a letter for delivery to an ally in France. Best friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) betrays Edmond to the politician Villefort (James Frain) as a Napoleonic conspirator, partly out of jealousy.

Villefort covets Edmond's intended, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). Only with Edmond imprisoned at the Alcatraz-like Chateau d'If, and then reported executed, can Villefort appropriate Mercedes' affection.

At d'If, the desolate Edmond befriends a priest-inmate, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), who tunnels endlessly. Faria knows the whereabouts of a fortune hidden at Monte Cristo.

It's an engrossing tale of naively misplaced trust, betrayal, treachery, unjust imprisonment, thrilling escape, loyalty, love, windfalls and revenge.

Reynolds, who directed "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "Waterworld" before a falling out with Kevin Costner, stages action well enough when the cinematography isn't jittery and the editing hyper (a fault confined to the first half-hour).

Swordplay tends to be shot too closeup or too distant - possibly to minimize the exposure of, or disguise, the actors supposedly dueling.

Although competently acted, "The Count of Monte Cristo" hasn't the charismatic actors of old, Harris being an obvious exception.

Colorful among the supporting players are Luis Guzman as Edmond's ally, Freddie Jones as Villefort's father and Henry Cavill as Mercedes' son Albert.

It's a thoroughly workmanlike tackling of a classic and probably is as good an adaptation as we'll see all year.

Andrew Dunn's cinematography often is beautiful, but I'd kill to restore real Color by Technicolor to movies. Today's muted tones always will suffer by comparison.

'The Count of Monte Cristo'

Director: Kevin Reynolds
Stars: Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Richard Harris
MPAA Rating: PG-13, for adventure violence/ swordplay and some sensuality

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