The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released January 25, 2002:

Call it swash without the buckle. While The Count of Monte Cristo does an adequate job of telling the Alexander Dumas story (heavily editing chapters and making the leads friends in this version) the whole experience feels very rote. The sword fighting scenes are nowhere what they were billed as and the direction is surprisingly lackluster. Only the actors allow this film to arise mediocrity particularly with a devious turn from Guy Pierce (Memento). Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) directed this film and proves he doesn’t need Kevin Costner to screw something up. Somewhere Costner is laughing. Actually, somewhere Costner is likely crying in his beer wondering what happened to him. “I was the king of the cinema…”

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I think 2002 is going to be my potential apology tour year when it comes to reviewing my initial film criticism of twenty years hence. The Count of Monte Cristo is my first entry for the new year and I already cringe re-reading my initial review. I think some of my early film reviews went overboard on snark, trying to establish a cool, chipper-than-thou attitude, but this was the early 2000s writing default for many. It was better to make quips, take some cheap shots, and sprinkle in some actual film criticism on top, and it’s a style of writing I’ve tried to grow out of as I’ve aged. I began writing film criticism back in 1999 as a means of expressing myself and showcasing my cinephile knowledge, and in many ways it was like learning to crack a puzzle, why a movie worked or didn’t work and what decisions lead to this eventual outcome. In some ways, early on, it was showing off and exploring my evolving writerly abilities, and sometimes that meant prioritizing cleverness over sincerity. I know I’m going to be reliving this with Crossroads but I’m reminded already with my first movie re-examination for the year 2002. So, to the filmmakers of The Count of Monte Cristo, on behalf of my then-19-year-old self, I apologize. Your movie is actually pretty good and, strangely, even makes some deviations from the book for the better.

Based upon the famous novel by Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), it’s a classic tale of vengeance and it’s plenty fun to watch because it feels like a movie that is giving you so many different turns at once. It’s almost structured like 30-minute episodes, and while being deemed “episodic” is usually regarded as a negative for a film story, I think this is an improvement. The beginning segment establishes how Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) gets into trouble, and he might just be the biggest idiot in the world. The opening features him and his best pal, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), seeking assistance for their ailing ship captain on the island of Elba during the time of Napoleon’s exile. Edmond agrees to deliver a letter from the deposed emperor to “an old friend” of his and then Edmond gets charged with treason in France. His shocked, incredulous response is absolutely hilarious (“What? Napoleon… USED me? I’m starting to rethink my whole appraisal of this man who tried to conquer the European continent.”). There’s a conspiracy by a government official to cover up his father being a Napoleon loyalist, the intended recipient of the letter, but it almost feels like Edmond deserves to be in jail for being this naively stupid. The first half hour sets up the villains, Edmond’s BFF betraying him to covet Edmond’s attractive wife, and the starting point for vengeance to be had. It’s economical storytelling and works well, and each thirty minutes feels like they are defined by a “very special guest star” who comes and goes.

The next thirty minutes explores Edmond’s life and routines in prison, lorded over by a cruel warden (Michael Wincott), and where he finds his mentor and salvation with an old priest, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris). Again, screenwriter Jay Wolpet efficiently establishes the routine, the passage of time, the means of how Edmond might escape, and his growing relationship and tutelage under a new unexpected friend. It’s kind of funny to watch old man Richard Harris (Gladiator) teach the considerably younger Caviezel how to sword fight, especially knowing that Harris would pass away later in 2002 at the age of 72. He needs the training because our first impression of this man is not favorable. Once Fernand betrays him, Edmond engages in what might be the most pathetic excuse for sword fighting I have ever seen. I know the classic character arc of starting inexperienced and weak and coming into experience and strength needs to be laid out, but man this guy just sucks. He runs around like a lame animal, crashing into furniture, meekly pushing glasses off a table and flopping like a soccer player trying to score a penalty card. However, the crucible of vengeance will temper this man into a dashing fighting machine. The prison segment establishes rules, develops a central antagonistic and mentor relationship, develops a prison break, and then provides Edmond with his first victory, first villain to topple, and shows his new cunning.

The next thirty minutes is almost a buddy movie between Edmond and Jacopo (Luis Guzman), the “best knife fighter in the world,” a smuggler whose life Edmond saves before joining the gang. Together they seek out the island of Monte Cristo, find a bountiful fortune thanks to Faria’s confiscated treasure map, and then Edmond reinvents himself as a mysterious count. He makes quite a flamboyant entrance, almost like a dapper nineteenth-century Great Gatsby, flaunting his extravagance and theatricality to make his mark with the upper social classes. His calculated social graces reminded me of any number of costume drama series that are predicated on operating within a rigid system of social manners and expectations. It’s about establishing his new reputation and working his way back into a position that he can tear apart whatever advantages Fernand has gotten used to. His former friend has married his wife, though he flaunts his infidelity, and he also is raising a son, Albert (Henry Cavill), that may or may not belong to Edmond. It’s through this son that Edmond sees his way back into the good graces of this family, staging a kidnapping and his rescue that gives him the standing he needs. Naturally, Edmond’s wife recognizes her former husband instantly, though he tries to deny her claims. This segment establishes the new normal, Edmond’s traps being set, and then it heads into its fitting climax.

Much of these plot points are from Dumas’ original novel, which is so tailor-made to make for an engaging adventure with a thirst for blood. It’s such a sturdy structure that provides satisfaction, as revenge stories often will; they are so easy to root for because it’s so utterly primal. There’s a reason there is an entire sub-genre of exploitation films is nothing but revenge (and yes, sadly, too often including rape as the inciting wrong to be avenged). It’s an easy hook for an audience to get onboard and root for. Wolpert’s adaptation makes some smart changes to better transform the story for the visual medium. By making Edmond and Fernand friends, it does make the betrayal feel even more bitter. Also, the means of vengeance is simply more engaging here. In the novel, Fernand’s bad deeds are exposed publicly and he’s humiliated and kills himself. He’s not even the final villain that Edmond gets vengeance upon. The 2002 movie improves a classic novel and makes the ending feel even more climactic. Watching a villain like Fernand just slink away would not be as satisfying as a finale (that’s not even the story’s finale). Wolpert, who is also credited with the screen story for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, died very recently as of this writing, on January 3, 2022.

Director Kevin Reynolds was two movies removed from 1995’s Waterworld, an expensive post-apocalyptic action movie set mainly at sea, and a movie that does not deserve its disastrous reputation. It’s a pretty fun sci-fi action movie with a great Denis Hopper villain and plenty of splashy, big screen spectacle. It was turned into a longstanding and well-received Universal Studios stunt show if it’s any consolation. Reynolds hasn’t really made much of a career after the long shadow of a supposed costly flop (only two movies since Monte Cristo), but if Renny Harlin, he of the also super expensive, studio-killing flop Cutthroat Island, can continue churning out genre dreck, why can’t Reynolds? The man has a natural feel for big screen spectacle, and with 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he’s proven that he can capture traditional settings and make them feel in keeping with modern tastes, and he can capture futuristic settings while making them feel grounded.

I’m sorry, Mr. Reynolds, because you did not “screw something up” with this movie (fun fact: Reynolds was the screenwriter for Red Dawn). However fair or unfair, the man is defined by his relationship to Kevin Costner, most recently with the 2012 Hatfield and McCoys miniseries and beginning with 1985’s Fandango, which began as a student film that Costner lost out on a role for. None other than Steven Spielberg recruited Reynolds to make a feature version of his short.

It’s strange to go back to The Count of Monte Cristo because of Caviezel’s god and martyr complex. I’m speaking of his 2004 portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s biblically successful Passion of the Christ, but he’s gone even further now, fully adopting the QAnon conspiracy of a cabal of liberal elites harvesting the blood of children, possibly while trafficked in Wayfair furniture, for Satanic rituals. His persecution complex was already alive years ago, saying he was made a “pariah” in Hollywood after Passion of the Christ, despite its international success, and ignoring the fact he starred in a TV series on CBS that ran for five seasons. I guess that’s what he means when he stars in QAnon-related biopics that nobody wants to release (Sound of Freedom is slated to have been released in January 2022, but I cannot find any evidence this has happened). It’s just sad to recall an actor before they so thoroughly declared themselves to be dangerous and/or crazy, but I’m sure to those who knew him, these uncomfortable impulses and proclivities and conspiracy leanings were already there.

The best reason to watch The Count of Monte Cristo is the supporting cast. Pearce is delightfully wicked and enjoying himself. Harris has such weathered gravitas to him. Guzman is hilarious and his modern acting approach just does not fit with the overall vibe of the movie, but that disconnect is part of his amusement. Even Cavill is fun to watch, especially since he was only 18 years old at the time (Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays his mother, is only seven years older). You’ll see the early indications of the swagger and presence that will define him as a square-jawed leading man. The Count of Monte Cristo is a well made, exciting, and satisfying revenge thriller, as well as a smart adaptation of a classic work of literature that actively finds ways to improve upon it, insofar as a big screen movie. I’m sorry I was so snide twenty years ago (the Costner jab was an unnecessary cheap shot). It’s certainly swash, with the buckle, and deserves a better grade and better appraisal after all these years apart.

Re-View Grade: B

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on January 28, 2022, in 2002 Movies, Review Re-View and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The film The Prisoner of Château d’If is a much better adaptation than The count of Monnte Cristo (2002).
    In the film adaptation The Prisoner of Château d’If (Узник замка Иф) we see the amazing actress Nadira Mirzaeva as Haydee. This is exactly how I pictured Haydee when I read the novel. And she really does look like a concubine in her revealing translucent clothes. It was this actress who, it seems to me, managed to accurately convey the image of the ardent and
    faithful Haydee. And immediately you can easily understand the count: is it possible to refuse such a woman if she asks for your love?
    The director of the film, Georgy Yungvald-Khilkevich could not resist Nadira. He left the family and married her.The 2002 version was a mess. The movie altered Danglars and Mondego. The film changed the tripartite division of Dantes’ enemies that were the mainstay of the Modern State: financial power, military might and justice. They symbolize all the gears of the French State that brought about the downfall of Dantes
    And Mondego shows dishonorable actions of French military who would go to help and were bribed, Danglars who is a banker who uses dishonest means to enrich himself. Corruption among the military and the financial system. France’s bases were rotten. For anyone who has read the book (or watch any reasonable adaptation), Monte Cristo is the symbol of the sublime being, someone who believed to be guided by God. Umberto Eco explained it by saying he was one of the first portraits of Nietzsche’s Overman. Well, in this
    movie all this magnificence has been converted to a middle American super-hero, with middle American values. I’m sorry, but there are so many American topics in this movie, and so little from Alexandre Dumas’ Count, apart from the name, that it just hurts to see it. Not only because it is a hardly an “adaptation”, but also because it represents the contrary of the original meaning of the story.
    2 hours is certainly not enough to adapt a 1400 page novel, especially one as dense as the Count of Monte Cristo. Leaving out the incredibly complex revenge plot in the books can certainly be forgiven, even if it leaves the revenge part of the plot lazy and cheesy at best. But not understanding the core message of the film – that revenge can backfire and cause you to become a monster – is unforgivable. The Count of Monte Cristo is not a revenge story, quite the opposite. In the penultimate chapter of the book, the Count meditates on the distinction of justice and revenge. Justice is impersonal, it is not about deriving pleasure. It is through the regret of the consequences of his revenge, and his embrace of forgiveness after justice has been given.
    Just a few examples of these “incorporated” values/topics:here, as in any other Hollywood movie, the good guys are good and the bad guys are very bad. So, they thought necessary to add some battering in the prison. Besides, Fernand is not a common man taking profit of the situation, as in the book, here he has a wicked soul, and so the “adapters” decide to show it by
    making him committing murder and being an unfaithful husband. There is a scene, where Fernand and Monte Cristo fight with their fists, that is ridiculous: where is the gentlemanliness that not only the book, but also the place and time of the story demands? Even the movements of the camera in that moment are offensive: you don’t know what movie you’re watching, Monte cristo or Rambo 6.
    It’s Americanized in a way that class differences and nobility vs. Common folk are completely ignored. Yet the story is set in France. In America, (at least in fiction, like North and South by John Jakes, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, etc.), one’s origins didn’t matter. You could come to America as an indentured servant or dirt poor, but through talent and ambition,
    you can elevate your family into the upper and respectable classes in a few generations. And
    marry into established old-money families.
    In France, it wasn’t like that, not in 1815. The scriptwriters in the movie didn’t HAVE to make Fernand an aristocrat from the start, but they did, opening up a huge can of worms and plot holes galore. Dumas did it right… Fernand as a humble fisherman, drafted into the army, made a name for himself and switched allegiances at just the right time, and enriched himself by betraying Ali Pasha, and coming home rich, and hailed as a hero by the Royalist faction that came to power. Dumas knew and understood France. The screenwriters of the 2002 movie did not.
    In France, there was a great formality in the relationship between a Count and his servants. Only certain servants of very high rank (Baptistin, Bertuccio) could speak directly to the Count, and not in crude slang. Others had to ask Baptistin or Bertuccio to speak for them.
    In the book, Edmond Dantes takes years to plan his revenge, not weeks or months, and does it in a very calculated, cold-blooded way, weaving an intricate, multi-faceted web in which to snare his enemies. In the movie, Edmond is still a hot-head, even after all those years in the Chateau d’If, and I could not help but feel cheated by his rather slap-dash methods.
    But the movie… has Fernand (a Viscount) being best friends from childhood with a common boy, and he wants to marry a common girl. Fernand’s boss is Morrel, and he has to wait for Morell to dismiss him before he can go. Danglars (looking very dirty and grungy) casually invites Viscount Fernand to drink with him and speaks to him very informally.
    The Count’s “revenge” on all of his enemies consists of dangling the Spada treasure in front of them and they all fall for it, lured like moths to a flame? How was Dantes privy to details of Clarion’s murder, since he wasn’t a witness to it and neither of the 2 culprits told him about it? Villefort was too experienced to fall into that primitive trap of the count and confess the crime that way.
    Edmond and Mercedes starting from scratch would be implausible. Both Mercedes and Monte
    Cristo “burned out” have a common sadness, but different memories. And Mercedes could
    hardly love Monte Cristo. Her heart belonged to the young, cheerful, confident, open, and
    noble Dantes, not the vengeful, dark Monte Cristo intriguing. She did not even love him anymore, but his memory of him was bright, joyful. Too deadly contrast Is it possible to go back, go back 20 years and intend to be happy? Years have passed and this is not the same Edmond, and Mercedes is already different. The past must remain in the past.
    Count and Mercedes wouldn’t work in the end. Over 20 years have gone by, and both of them had irreversibly changed. They can’t live in the past, and that’s all they have in-common. If they got together, Mercedes would be upset with the Count and his ways- she wouldn’t understand him, and she’d constantly tell him “You weren’t like this before” and she’d tell her “I’m not 19 years old anymore”. Both would be unhappy.
    Haydee is a better fit for the Count of Monte Cristo as a partner than Mercedes. Mercedes was a lovely girl for Edmond Dantes but Haydee knew the pain of imprisonment, the despair of not having freedom, the helplessness that consumes a person when they are trapped by others’ wills and wants. Haydee could understand who Dantes had become as a result of his unfair imprisonment; Mercedes had no reference for this level of pain in her cushioned life. How could Mercedes ever understand the forces that shaped her childhood sweetheart into the man he’d become? Due to their shared empathy, it was extremely appropriate for the Count and Haydee to be together at the end of the story.
    The count of Monte Cristo by kevin Reynolds is more like a copy rum from Homer’s Odyssey. Edmond would be Odysseus, Mercees is Penelope, Albert is Telemachus.
    The difference is that Odysseus wanted to return to Ithaca after years away from home, Edmond wanted revenge for the betrayal he suffered, Penelope was being coerced into remarrying, and Mercedes voluntarily remarried. Edmond was not as obsessed with her as Menelaus was to retrieve Helen and started a war to retrieve his wife. Telemachus knew who his father was, it was easier to develop emotional ties with Odysseus, since Albert and Edmond did not know that he was father and son. It couldn’t be all of a sudden that they would develop emotional bonds. Odysseus suddenly appeared in disguise when he killed his enemies who
    were disputing who would marry Penelope. Edmond already set a primitive trap

    As I have read Homer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Alexandre Dumas, this mediocre film style will never impress me.

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