As my first review under the new Bottom Shelf feature here at Front Room Cinema, I decided to give a chance to some forgotten titles from the last couple of decades that perhaps were unfairly maligned, or skipped by the majority of audiences. Perhaps I’ll uncover a hitherto unknown classic, or a rotten turd floating along, or perhaps I’ll rekindle an old appreciation I’d long since forgotten. Essentially, I’m choosing old DVD’s from the bottom of my collection, films I haven’t watched in a while (or in years) that could be worth revisiting.
It’s a shame, then, that the first film I went to was Peter Hyams’ 2001 turkey, The Musketeer. This film, one I went to see upon release at the cinema, features a debut leading role from current Grey’s Anatomy star Justin Chambers, as well as a post-American Pie Mena Suvari, and a scene-stealing Tim Roth as the central villain. Hyams, who gave us films like Sudden Death, The Relic and 2010: The Year We Make Contact, tries hard to give the old story of D’Artagnan a kick in the backside with an uptick in action, but the way it’s done works counter-intuitively to the narrative and overall tone of the film.
D’Aartagnan, played here by Justin Chambers, seeks revenge against the evil Febre (Tim Roth), a man working for a corrupt Catholic Cardinal (Stephen Rea) who wants to start a war between France and England. Febre killed D’Artagnan’s parents when he was just a lad, and is now seeking entry into the famed Kings Guards (the Musketeers) – an order of “knights” who have been sent into hiding thanks to the Cardinal’s influence on the King. Along with Musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis, D’Artagnan must seek to thwart the plans of the Cardinal and Febre, get the girl (Francesca, played by Mena Suvari) and save the country from war. Cue sword-fighting, stunt-work and some potentially exciting set-pieces.
I say potentially, because The Musketeer is a film with loads of potential – wasted potential, unfortunately. Hyams drapes the film in his typically high-contrast lighting style, using darkness and shadow almost everywhere. Hyams, in trying to deliver some out-of-the-box action sequences, uses acclaimed stunt choreographer Xin-Xin Xiong to create several wire-fu sequences that seem to out of place they destroy any legitimacy this film has of being a cool version of Alexandre Dumas’ classic story. Yes, this is a French sword-fighting flick with Asian fighting styles. Think that’s weird? Well, the two leads – former Calvin Klein model Justin Chambers, and American Pie starlet Mena Suvari, deliver their provincial dialogue with the twang of Southern California, and that’s a dire problem this film faces. Incongruous accents aside, the film suffers from a single major issue that it can never overcome, regardless of the quality of the action sequences: the script.
Never before has a film unwound so quickly than this one; from the pre-credit sequence, you get the feeling that about half as much effort was put into Gene Quintano’s script that was put into writing Battlefield Earth. There’s little character development, save for that of D’Artagnan, and the cumbersome lethargy Quintano’s script seems to infuse throughout this mess just oozes a singular ineptitude to the source material. It’s like Quintano went for a join-the-dots version of the Musketeer story. The plot rattles along with little coherent belief in itself, content to just deliver badly written sequence after badly written sequence, until the audience simply has no choice but to accept that there’s gonna be lengthy moments of nothing in between relatively brief action beats.
The acting is, with only a single exception, poor. Chambers tries hard but can’t muster the spark needed to carry this movie. Mena Suvari delivers her lines like a lumberjack delivering tree trunks to the mill, she’s so wooden. Stephen Rea is delicious as the Cardinal, although he’s criminally underused and is forced to provide only the merest hint of credible malevolence in what is essentially a nothing role. Tim Roth, however, is the shining light here, chewing the scenery and outclassing everyone else he’s on screen with – it’s just a pity his character is so poorly developed and written, otherwise Febre could have been a genuine contender for one of cinema’s classic villains. Legendary actress Catherine Denueve is utterly wasted as the French Queen – she’s given so little to do it’s a wonder she even bothered to turn up to film it! And the less said about the rest of this cast, the better. Everyone tries hard, I guess, but the scripting and Hyams’ oppressive direction prevents any warmth or empathy with the audience.
Peter Hyams’ unique visual style saturates this film with shadow and darkness.The DVD on which the film is presented struggles to adequately present the films unique visual style, a style that obliterates and love I may have had for what he achieved in The Relic (a terrifically shot horror film, I might add!) and gives this movie a real compressed, orange hue. And for a laugh, check out the opening credits, which look for all the world like somebody let the studio intern loose with Photoshop to design them – they’re terrible. The final battle sequence (because there’s always a final battle sequence in these movies) is set in the driving, pouring rain, in the dead of night, and with minimal lighting. Why? No idea, but it’s a directorial choice that destroys any chance this film had of redeeming itself. D’Artagnan at one point clambers, Batman style, up the side of a turret on a castle, before having to sword-fight some of Febre’s men (hanging from ropes, mind you, down the side of a freakin’ turret!) in order to save the girl. At this point, you begin to wonder just where the insanity will end. It doesn’t end there, as D’Artagnan and Febre battle it out moments later with swords using enormous ladders in a massive wine cellar. Again with the wire-fu. Because wire-fu is so legitimate in 17th Century France, right? Cirque du Soleil would be so proud.
I wanted to enjoy The Musketeer, because the cover promised so much. My memory of seeing it in the cinema is vague, to say the least, but I remember being impressed with the wire-fu at the time (it was barely a year since the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film which propelled this kind of stunt-work into the public forefront) although now, I gagged with its inappropriate usage. The Musketeer has very few saving graces (Tim Roth being about it, really) and the film’s poor DVD transfer is perhaps indicative of just where it ranks in Universal Pictures’ estimations. Poor scripting, the foundation for this films significant failures, is accentuated by woeful acting and some skillful-yet-meaningless action sequences. If I was to be totally honest, this film is abysmal, a horrendously mounted, desperately acted, terribly edited miasma from which there is only one escape – the off button. It’s no wonder this DVD is worth less than 5 bucks on Amazon.
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