The Count of Monte Cristo
3 stars

by Stephen Notley

You write a lot of three-star reviews in this business, and it usually comes down to the same problem over and over again: bad movies with good parts. So you'll have a movie like Black Hawk Down, for instance, which has a state-of-the art depiction of the hell of military combat, but it's kind of boring and trivial at the same time. What do you do? Three stars, that's what.

And then a movie like The Count of Monte Cristo comes along, and it's a three-star movie, but in a different way. See, there's no particular thing about it that's great, no super-magnificent swordwork or big special effect or amazing performance that begs to be torn out and put in a trailer. There's not a lot to point to and say "That was awesome."

But there's nothing about it that sucks, either. It's a good time. There's no flashy anything; it's just, somehow, a good story well told. From Hollywood, even.

Moviegoers may dimly remember Kevin Reynolds, who spent the early to mid-90s making movies with Kevin Costner, starting with the pretty-good Fandango, moving on to the forgettable Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and climaxing with landmark failure Waterworld. After Waterworld, nobody really let him near a camera for a while, but really, wasn't all that crap Costner's fault?

Apparently so, if The Count of Monte Cristo is any indication. The best thing about the movie is that is tells its story straight; there's no techno-soundtrack, no Matrix shots, no Hong-Kong-style swordfighting. Reynolds wisely chose not to "jazz it up", 2002-style, with extra crap. Instead, it's just good actors, a solid script, and lots of great-looking shots of seaside cliffs and sumptuous French mansions.

Having never read the book, I went into the movie only knowing it was about a guy who's betrayed by his friend, goes to prison, escapes, finds a big pile of treasure, and goes back to get revenge. Along the way he encounters various villains and allies, all sketched out with a charming Charles Dickens-y simplicity, and the story winds its little twists and turns of fate through post-Napoleanic France with hardly a misstep.

You'd think Antonio Banderas would be in this movie, but he isn't. In fact, there are hardly any stars at all, with the halfway exception of Guy Pierce (tightass jerk cop from L.A. Confidential, now appearing in the Time Machine trailer) and Richard Harris (most recently Dumbledore in Harry Potter), and neither of these guys plays the hero.

But there's something kind of pleasing about a movie without a lot of familiar faces, just characters without extra baggage. A Brit actor named James Frain plays Villefort, the corrupt magistrate who imprisons the hero, with a sly bureaucratic calm. Luis Guzman, everybody's favorite stocky Hispanic actor, plays Jacopo, the hero's trusty servant, with his usual sweaty gusto. In fact out of all the performances, it's James Caviezel as the hero, Edmund Dantes, who risks fading into the woodwork.

But no, he holds your attention, fighting an elemental physical challenge of escape, then smoothly moving the conflict inside, battling his own need for revenge. And it's interesting, all the way to the end.  Not great, not great-but-also-sucky, just good.