So desperate is this umpteenth adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" to find any angle that some half-dozen previous versions haven't yet exploited, that it actually resorts to nothing less than cutting Athos, Porthos and Aramis out of their own story.
The Musketeers aren't entirely absent from the film - Nick Moran's Aramis, Jan Gregor Kremp's Athos and Steven Spiers' Porthos float in and out of several key scenes and do get their share of swashbuckling licks - but it's clearly a revisionist take on the story with the youthful D'Artagnan (newcomer Justin Chambers) far bolder and more proactive and the Musketeers vastly more impotent than anyone but D'Artagnan himself might have dreamed possible. As cocky as this conceit may seem, it's hardly the film's undoing. What ultimately wrecks "The Musketeer" is really nothing more than a case of misplaced priorities - lavish production values and elaborate action sequences at the expense of script and performance.
The look of "The Musketeer" is undeniably impressive. Shot on location in Luxembourg (and partly in France), the ambitious European co-production has a vibrant authenticity clearly designed to echo that of Richard Lester's definitive 1974 films, "The Three Musketeers" and "The Four Musketeers." Action sequences designed by renowned Hong Kong fight choreographer and sometime actor Xin Xin Xiong (best known for his work with producer/director Tsui Hark on such films as the "Once Upon a Time in China" series) supply the requisite level of swordplay and dazzling stunts, wisely keeping any overt resemblance to Hong Kong-style martial arts scenes like those in "The Matrix" and "Charlie's Angels" to a minimum. But the attention to technical detail only serves to illuminate the picture's glaring dramatic shortcomings - the disastrously ham-fisted screenplay by Gene Quintano and staggeringly stilted performances from Chambers and Mena Suvari that are more leaden than lead.
Best known as a writer of television movies and lowbrow comedies (he's credited on two "Police Academy" films), Quintano is clearly an odd choice for the task of adapting Dumas, a mismatching of writer and material that yields a predictably awkward mélange of contemporary phrases and misbegotten mixed period metaphors that even veteran actors like Tim Roth and Stephen Rea can't seem to manage. Roth and Rea, however, fare better than the rest of the pan-European supporting performers (including a horrifically miscast Catherine Deneuve as the Queen), relying on the reliable cloak of villainy to inject their characters with a modicum of life. Rea, as the conniving Cardinal Richelieu, is nicely understated while Tim Roth as Richelieu's evil henchman Febre produces yet another colorful sadist in the vein of his popular "Rob Roy" scoundrel.
That Universal are proudly touting the participation of Xiong in the film's marketing materials - even to the exclusion of the actors - says much about the Hollywood ascendance of Hong Kong action mavens. It also, however, suggests a perceived softness among the film's target audience -- a softness which Universal apparently hopes to remedy by catering to the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fan base. But here, too, "The Musketeer" is not without its shortcomings. Xiong's work, like that of his colleagues, is designed with editing and photography in mind -- and neither director Peter Hyams (again acting as his own cinematographer) nor the redoubtable Terry Rawlings (an ace editor with such films as "Chariots of Fire" and "Alien" to his credit) are sufficiently schooled in the Hong Kong way of doing things to do justice to Xiong's choreography. Portions of some action scenes shine while most suffer from overcutting, poor coverage and disorienting camerawork.
On a positive note, "The Musketeer" serves the memory of Dumas less disgracefully than the two other recent Musketeer-themed efforts: Disney's sloppy 1993 "The Three Musketeers" and 1998's horrendous "The Man in the Iron Mask." Starring Justin Chambers, Tim Roth, Catherine Deneuve, Stephen Rea, Mena Suvari, Steven Spiers, Jan Gregor Kremp, Nick Moran and Jean-Pierre Castaldi. Directed by Peter Hyams. Written by Gene Quintano. Produced by Rudy Cohen and Moshe Diamant. A Universal Pictures release. Adventure. Rated PG-13 for intense action violence and some sexual material.. Running time: 104 min