After years of bringing videogames to the big screen (Mortal Kombat and the Resident Evil series), Paul W.S. Anderson graduates to adapting printed words with his version of The Three Musketeers. It’s a savvy choice for an impresario of schlock: the book has been adapted so many times that one more bastardization doesn’t much matter.
In fact, Anderson’s version—which opened cold on 21 October—works best at its most ridiculous and potentially offensive to devotees of Alexandre Dumas. The movie recasts Athos (Matthew Macfayden), Aramis (Luke Evans), Porthos (Ray Stevenson), and newcomer D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) as something of an impossible missions force, pulling off dazzling, elaborate, sometimes noisy heists for the sake of the French crown (in the opening sequence, they retrieve flying-machine blueprints from the secret vault of Leonard Da Vinci). This adjustment allows Anderson to indulge his love of a particular image: Milla Jovovich (his off-screen wife) sliding down booby-trapped hallways. Here this scenario (which occurs semi-regularly in the Resident Evil films) has Jovovich in period dress as Milady de Winter, a Musketeer ally.
But Milady betrays the trio early on. After joining forces with the evil Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom) while also working with the conniving Cardinal Richelieushe (Christoph Waltz), she’s effectively replaced on the good-guy side by fresh-faced D’Artagnan, who seeks to rouse the musketeers from semi-retirement. This development is vaguely faithful to the original story, but tedious for the movie, because Lerman is a far less assured B-movie presence than Jovovich (who returns to a cartoony comfort zone here, playing an international woman of mystery after strong legitimate performances in Stone and A Perfect Getaway).
If Jovovich has developed some action-movie authority, Lerman is instantly less credible. D’Artagnan is supposed to be cocky—we know this because his associates say so repeatedly—but Lerman is too bland to register as arrogant. When he spends his earliest moments challenging other characters to duels, he seems equal parts dim, suicidal, and psychotic.
In this he adds to the film’s more general psychosis. Though the central story hook is similar to the Dumas novel—the musketeers must retrieve a stolen necklace to avoid an international incident and possible war—Anderson’s penchant for mayhem leaves an unnecessary number of corpses in his heroes’ wake. When the four swordsmen take on 40 of the Cardinal’s men before the story even kicks in, it’s supposed to be impressive and entertaining rather than mass murder.
While the body count is disturbing in an offhand, PG-13 sort of way, the movie falters more obviously more when it addresses more conventional aspects of the story, like palace intrigue or witty derring-do. Given its mixture of historical costumes and anachronisms—along with a Hans Zimmer-aping musical score and the presence of Orlando Bloom—The Three Musketeers is plainly copying Pirates of the Caribbean as well as Sherlock Holmes. But given Anderson’s skill set, it plays more like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (The musketeers aren’t much easier to tell apart than the Ninja Turtles, but they don’t wear helpful colored bandanas.) Amid the film’s antics, Bloom may be up to something else as well, as he changes up his insipid hero image by playing a mustachioed baddie and seems to be having fun, but his swashbuckling experience might’ve been better utilized playing an actual musketeer.
Instead, the movie settles for enjoyably cheesy action sequences involving swordplay, old-timey gunfire, and that flying ship business. Stranger, Anderson also seems convinced that he’s making a romantic story, placing undue emphasis on D’Artagnan’s colorless romance with a palace girl, the bittersweet parting of Athos and Milady, and the mildly cute attraction between King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox) and his new queen (Juno Temple). As they regard each other with bizarre shyness, they embody a junior-high romance version of French royalty (and as in many junior high schools, no one seems to know any French).
Such story details don’t do much to distract The Three Musketeers from its focus on “costumes, fireworks, and such,” as one character describes the climactic ball scene. Anderson crashes the party with amusing bluntness, dropping an airship onto Notre Dame. Here his newfound fondness for shooting in 3D is something of a boon even for 2D audiences, as it keeps him from overcutting his silly action sequences.
It doesn’t, however, keep him from shameless franchise-baiting, as the finale promises bigger and crazier adventures with the zeal and honesty of a carnival barker. As such, the final shot of The Three Musketeers will be familiar to any Resident Evil fan for the way it expects the audience to get excited about a massive action sequence that may or may not happen in a sequel, but would have enlivened the current movie. Given its lackluster box office, that Musketeers sequel now looks unlikely. But Resident Evil 5 will be coming soon enough.