After seeing those flashy trailers for Paul W.S.Anderson’s The Three Musketeers—complete with steam-punk airships and Milla Jovovich’s bouyant corset-fu—I found myself wondering ‘Did they adapt the novel or the candy bar?’ Now, having the seen the full brunt of Anderson’s opus, that potentially marvelous headline is spoiled. A candy bar, after all, is light, fluffy and sweet. Anderson’s bubbling cauldron of stupidity is like a leaden cannonball pelted directly into one’s midsection. You go down for the count when it connects. How did things go this wrong? Was Luc Besson not available?
As goofy as expected, the real problem with The Three Musketeers isn’t its gleeful desecration of Dumas’ original tale but its stubborn tendency to do nothing with those crazy departures from the source material. Surely some will defend Anderson by casting all naysayers as literary snobs too busy excavating the interiors of Dumas’ butt to pay attention to this ‘artist’s’ reinvention of a coveted work. Please. Unfortunately, it’s not art and literature that this abomination stabs in the heart. Rather, the real victim is b-movie boldness and irreverence, both getting a vicious garroting here. Like League of Extraordinary Gentleman before it, it makes the incorrect case that wild wackiness and revisionism have no place mixing with classic stories. Musketeers doesn’t fail for being too silly, it fails because it’s lazy, ponderous and a hot mess from a writing/directing perspective.
The script, written by Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies, shows up on screen like someone chewed up the original novel and and issues of Weird Wonder Tales and then pooed them on to the screen, failing to account for any internal logic. Instead of presenting an alternate and compelling version of 17th Century France, Litvak and Davies just route modern day language, attitudes and behaviors into generic period setting. The plot follows the three mainstay Musketeers –heartsick Athos (Matthew Macfayden), burly, lusty Porthos (Ray Stevenson), and calculating Aramis (Luke Evans)—as they find themselves replaced by the king’s army at the behest of the villainous Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz). The trio are also sold out by the duplicitous Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich), a turncoat who once held their trust,and one of their hearts. Milady uses them to steal Leonardo da Vinci’s blueprints for those anachronistic flying war ships from a dangerous, sealed vault and then turns the designs over to the the equally vile Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). It’s a further conflict of interest that she’s also helping Richelieu stage a takeover of the French aristocracy.
Like many of the other iterations of this story, it is the young and reckless D’artagnan (Logan Lerman) who takes center stage as the hero. An arrogant youth at the start, waving his sword at anyone in immediate vicinity—whether that be Richelieu’s captain of the guard, Rochefort (Mads Mikelsen) or the Musketeers—he eventually evolves into the action figure (and fourth musketeer) the tale requires. By the time Litvak and Davies have traded up the derring-do of the novel for recycled Resident Evil set pieces and a out-of-place romantic subplot involving Lerman counseling King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox) on how to improve his arranged marriage with Anne, it’s already time to get those (dueling!) airships flying and the film cascades into incoherence. There are fight sequences, but they lack skilled choreography and competent direction, reverting instead to the stilted live-action equivalent of video game cut scenes. The last third, featuring an absurd milieu of confused characters and poor editing, so deftly ruins the big skirmish between the airships you would assume Anderson was on a mission of self-sabotage. This is just money burning on the screen.
Not unlike this summer’s last Pirates of the Caribbean fiasco, The Three Musketeers tries to hide its slight nature under mountains of production design and carefully crafted costuming and special effects, ladled onto a cast that surely should know better. But if Jack Sparrow’s last adventure was dramatically dead in the water, Musketeers is a sunken galleon, a cinematic wreck that honestly feels like a ghost ship with no one at the helm. The acting is a mixed bag, but it doesn’t really matter. No one comes out looking good here; not the soulful Matthew McFayden, the cheerfully dastardly Waltz, or the moony Lerman. Even Jovovich, twirling and scowling her way through this as if it were The Fifth Element, can’t find anything to latch onto.
Therein lies the true failure of the picture; not one element or scene of this seems connected to another. There’s an interesting and heartening opening that threatens to capture the boyhood spirit of the enterprise, with MacFayden narrating over scenes of toy soldiers and maps. That scene leads nowhere though. Despite having helmed several previous movies, Paul Anderson has made something that bears no specific directorial stamp or technique, and feels like a studio cut hacked together from incomplete footage. For all I know, these actors thought they were at an audition for a legitimate Musketeer movie, Anderson filmed those auditions, and then—Bowfinger style—threw in some second-rate special effects, and edited it all together. That would at least explain the logical errors of many sequences, or the ill-fitting nature of others. That corridor of death that protects Davinci’s vault doesn’t feel like it ever belonged in this movie and Anderson only added it due to a lull in the action.
Nothing helps though. The worst characteristic of The Three Musketeers is that it just drags along, never picking up momentum or interest. It doesn’t understand at any level the charm or draw of Alexandre Dumas’ novel. You can’t pull apart a car if you can’t identify the parts themselves. In that case, the ignorant could take a sledgehammer and still ensure everything is lying on the floor at the end. The latter approach is the one Anderson takes. I’ve been lenient on him in the past, mostly because I had very little investment in the source material of his previous work. Here, he’s proven—perhaps for all time—that he shouldn’t be allowed around any genre picture of interest. Unfortunately for the cast and crew, they followed the wrong man when they decided on ‘All for one.’