Audiences and readers began cheering Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” in 1846, and goodwill likely will continue through the tale’s latest movie reincarnation.
Social mores and public tastes have undergone countless revolutions over the last 156 years, but one emotion remains constant, a desire for revenge. In Dumas’ saga, revenge is not merely sweet but also picturesque and exciting.
Kevin Reynolds, best-known for the woeful “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and the infamous “Waterworld,” shows respect for both his venerable source and his contemporary audience.
For starters, “The Count of Monte Cristo” has both a hero and a villain who stir our empathy.
Jim Caviezel, he of the soulful, even sorrowful, eyes, is perfect casting as the sinned-against Edmond Dantes.
When first seen, he’s sweet, trusting and naive enough to pass for a Napoleon Era wimp. But misfortune matures him, and by the film’s conclusion, he’s as worthy a swashbuckler as Dumas’ other hardy hero, “The Three Musketeers'” D’Artagnan.
Guy Pearce, the moody lad of “Memento” and “L.A. Confidential,” similarly registers several graduations of wrongdoing as nefarious Fernand Mondego.
He first seems a sulky brute who always seeks what he cannot possess, but his villainy escalates to malevolent proportions.
With a friend like Fernand, Edmond needs no enemies.
Fernand lusts after Edmond’s fiancee Mercedes, Dagmara Dominczyk, and in general covets his friend’s capacity for happiness.
Just when Edmond’s personal and professional futures shine their brightest, Fernand engineers a plan to frame his friend for treason. The shattered Edmond is sentenced to the notorious island prison, the Chateau D’If. Fernand quickly starts consoling Mercedes.
Edmond spends 13 years in prison. Another inmate, the Abbe Faria, Richard Harris, a soldier-turned-pacifist-turned-poet, befriends Edmond, imparting to the wounded youth his knowledge of the world in general and weapons in particular. And, oh yes, he also gives Edmond directions to a buried treasure, always useful for anyone on a vendetta.
Edmond daringly escapes prison, finds the treasure, re-invents himself as the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo and extracts revenge from his surprised enemies.
Throughout the proceedings, Caviezel is a hero you can cheer; Pearce, a villain you can hiss; and Harris, an eccentric you can enjoy. In a less textured role, Dominczyk is convincing whether smiling or pouting.
Reynolds keeps the drama percolating. As suggested by the better scenes in “Waterworld,” he knows how to film action with the right amount of gusto.
Those who keep up with such trivia will recall that the arduous shooting of “Waterworld” ended the longtime friendship between Reynolds and his star Kevin Costner. At least Reynolds had the good grace not to ask Costner to play Pearce’s role of Fernand.