Remake shows you can't choreograph charisma

September 07, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

You'd think the first reason to remake The Three Musketeers would be to introduce a dashing new D'Artagnan - an actor-athlete on the level of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. or Gene Kelly, who brought humor and panache to stunts and swordplay. Unfortunately, aside from his swashbuckling duds, Justin Chambers as D'Artagnan in The Musketeer still appears to be the cool American WASP he played in Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights.

There's no electricity in his body and no joy in his face - that is, when you can see his face. Director Peter Hyams has given him a hat whose brim flops down to the bridge of his nose, to match him more easily with his stunt double.

Obviously, to Hyams, the real star is Hong Kong action choreographer Xin-Xin Xiong. We already got a Boys In Doublets edition of Alexandre Dumas' novel in the 1993 version starring Chris O'Donnell as D'Artagnan; that one was directed by Stephen Herek, who made today's other train-wreck opening, Rock Star. The idea behind Hyams' version is that if you take the same old story about King Louis XIII's patriotic musketeers battling the forces of conniving Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea), but streamline it and fit it out with whirling fights, it will seem spanking new.

Yet to make outrageous duels and chases click, you need more than inventive choreography: you need a director. And as director and cinematographer both, Hyams fails to set up Xiong's elaborate dare-deviltry and make it pay off. The first big fight for D'Artagnan, which erupts at an inn, is so poorly staged and muddily photographed that there's no exhilaration in seeing him somersault on barrels or fence with multiple antagonists while he balances between ceiling beams.

The excitement of the best Hong Kong movies comes from martial artists who also are gifted theatrical performers, like Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li; they carry the Fairbanks tradition forward, the way Gene Kelly did. Here, even when Xiong's concepts tumble jauntily along - as in the climactic fight, staged on ladders - you don't get the intended exultation because, as in cheesy old serials, it's too easy to tell where the actors stop and the stunt-people begin.

The screenwriter, Gene Quintano, wrote one of the worst variations on a classic adventure story I've ever seen: Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, with Richard Chamberlain. His script for The Musketeer rests firmly in that tradition. Quintano is the kind of writer who believes that a suitable bold stroke is having the villain - Richelieu's executioner, Febre (Tim Roth) - kill the hero's parents right in front of him.

His most original notion is depicting D'Artagnan not as the young hick who must prove himself in Paris but as a slick top sword who revitalizes a depressed Musketeer squad. Chambers doesn't have the charisma to pull it off; what he conveys instead is an irritating sense of entitlement. And if jarring accents usually don't bother me, Chambers' inability or refusal to bring a sense of formality to his speech - something Mena Suvari does quite simply as his lady love - wrecks any chance of sustaining the illusion that we're in the 17th century. He still says "All for one and one for all," but he might as well be calling his new comrades his "posse."

Roth gets his nervous laughs as a brittle sadist. But the actor who plays the King is invisible, the three Musketeers who befriend our hero are nonentities, and Lord Buckingham is amusing only if you know that Jeremy Clyde, who plays him, was Jeremy from the Swingin' England duo Chad and Jeremy. The most fun here is Catherine Deneuve as a Queen who spends a lot of time posing as a jolly commoner. As a performer, she spends all her time slumming in this picture, but at least she seems to be enjoying herself. When she passes two bound and gagged men on the entrance to the royal sewer, she merrily trills, "Allo, allo." If it weren't for her, I might have said goodbye, goodbye before the film was over.

The Musketeer

Starring Justin Chambers, Catherine Deneuve, Mena Suvari, Tim Roth, Stephen Rea

Directed by Peter Hyams

Rated PG-13 (violence, some sex)

Released by Universal/Miramax

Running time 104 minutes

Sun score *

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