It’s hard to name the thing most wrong about Peter (Timecop) Hyams’s A Knight’s Tale-wannabe. Though it lacks the crisp ensemble cast, slo-mo jousting scenes, and muscled-up ‘80s rock soundtrack, The Musketeer does have a few things in common with its most obvious predecessor on the hybrid-appeal highway: it’s a period piece redecorated as an action-romance film, with horses, mud, big sticks of a sort, and former Calvin Klein model, 31-year-old father of four, and suddenly up-and-coming-star-boy Justin Chambers as D’Artagnan.
You probably have heard of D’Artagnan or at least the Musketeers, even if you’ve never read Alexandre Dumas’s novel, because the story of the 17th-century French swordsmen have been re-envisioned a few too many times, in movies, tv, and theater. Indeed, Hyams (who is also the director of photography on his films) reports that when he was first handed the script, he was inclined to turn it down because it’s been done so often. And then he says he hit on this idea to combine the swashbuckling with fast and furious Hong Kong fighting, and voila! the project was reborn. According to the press-notes lore, producer Moshe Diamant agreed that riding the already-tired Matrix wave was a good idea. They cast American Beauty‘s Mena Suvari as the love interest, Catherine Deneuve as the Queen, some more French and British actors as supporting cast, and an “authentic” Hong Kong action actor and choreographer, Xin-Xin Xiong, to choreograph the fight scenes (he acted with Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China and choreographed Time and Tide).
Now, I’m all for hybrid media, mooshing together images and ideas to come up with something that looks new, or at least respectful of its multiple sources. The Musketeer is not that. Instead of being innovative, it’s appropriative and (save for the very clever fight scenes), straight-up insipid.
The story this time begins as the child D’Artagnan (Max Dolby) witnesses his ex-Musketeer dad and mom’s brutal murder by the tax-collecting Febre (Tim Roth, looking suitably surly, but not nearly so acrobatic or entertainingly hissy as when he played Marky Mark’s chimpish adversary). When D’Artagnan retaliates by stabbing out Febre’s eye (a good trick, since the four-foot-high kid is on the ground and Febre’s astride his big horse, about 7 feet off the ground), both the cute little blond kid and super-villain vow revenge on one another. Lucky for the kid, his dad’s trainer, Planchet (Jean-Pierre Castaldi) takes up the cause, though he warns the scruffy little boy that he trained his father to “live,” not to “kill.” D’Artagnan doesn’t even want to hear that moral high-grounding stuff. And frankly, neither does the movie. By the next scene, marked “14 years later,” D’Artagnan’s grown up into crooked-toothed Justin Chambers, and he’s a lean-and-mean ass-kicking machine.
Chambers’ entrance into the movie establishes its major problem: D’Artagnan is lackluster-as-can-be, focused on this revenge thing and somehow melding it with his desire to become a Musketeer like dad. This patriarchal lineage business is compounded by D’Artagnan’s unquestioning and apparently genetically determined devotion to the King (Daniel Mesguich) just because he is the king and despite the fact that he’s a spineless jerk, being manipulated by the conniving, power-tripping Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea).
Thus the movie is embroiled in rather half-assed politics that it must then finesse by making the Cardinal really terrible (but not so bad as his madman minion Febre) and making Deneuve’s Queen someone worth defending (“What you are doing is very important for France!” she encourages our boy D). Because D’Artagnan’s not really a class-system-challenging peasant like the hero of A Knight’s Tale (and goes so far as to treat his mentor Planchet like a servant), he has to work a little harder to look appealingly scruffy and under-doggish. He manages this in part by hooking up with a chambermaid (Suvari’s Francesca, supposedly Spanish, but, well, like, her accent’s kind of, gee, whatever, though—to be fair—not quite so slippery as D’Artagnan’s), who happens to be buddies with Deneuve’s Queen. Bizarrely, the Queen is established as the most admirable figure in the film, politically speaking. The specifics of her admirability aren’t really explained, but she does make Francesca, D’Artagnan, and Planchet escort her across France in the dead of night, so she can visit with a sweet old woman who is somehow crucial to the future of France as a “good” monarchy, in league with that other “good” imperial power, England.
But enough of such nonsensical details. There are really two main reasons to even consider seeing this film. First, D’Artagnan’s mighty black wonder-horse, Stega. This steed is so faithful and uncanny that whenever D’Artagnan whistles, he appears as if from nowhere. His big scene comes when D’Artagnan literally rides him into the ground, hops off and leaves the poor thing heaving and gasping in the mud, calling back over his shoulder, “I’ll come back for you!” Depending on your point of view, this is the film’s most touching scene or its most retarded.
Second, while the much-publicized “action” scenes are not well-motivated (a fact observed by feisty Francesca), they are quite wonderful, speedy and precise and pulsing with energy. D’Artagnan is a dullard when struggling through the badly-edited slapdashy plot, whether he’s bonding with his mates or romancing his unkillable girl (I won’t go into it, but she inexplicably survives what seems certain death). This means that the fight scenes are his only chance to shine. Here’s the hitch: though Chambers is, I’m sure, a very nice person, he is not and never will an action star, and so he doesn’t even pretend to fight. Qiao Tan is his (excellent) stunt double, and Xiang himself doubles for Febre. In fact, most of the stunt doubles are Chinese—among them, Wing Kin Yip, Yuen Xiao, Chun Hon, and Vinh Q Le—their faces disguised by their floppy Musketeers’ hats and deep shadows.
The fight scenes are—emphatically—the movie’s money scenes. Again and again, D’Artagnan takes on his adversaries, casual or intense, any which way he can. Thank goodness that Quio Tan is an able fighter: check, for instance, the first fight scene, set in a roadhouse (in which D’Artagnan swashes buckles and leaps about with a crew of very rude, just-asking-for-it fellows, and Qiao Tan does a split to rival Jean-Claude Van Damme in his long-gone heyday, and twirls his body while supporting himself between ceiling beams in a most amazing way); the galloping carriage scene (referencing any number of similar stagecoach scenes, where D’Artagnan must hand-over-hand himself under the coach); the climbing-up-the-side-of-the-tower scene (where D’Artagnan fights off several assailants while hanging on to ropes); and the sensational “ladders” showdown with Febre/Xiong (borrowing from Jet Li).
All these fight scenes make up enough of a narrative on their own, that the other scenes where the characters strut about in feathered caps and rustling robes, glare meaningfully at one another in soap-opera-ish close-ups, or breathe heavily as if they are feeling some powerful emotions, are rather superfluous. It’s pretty clear that the folks who made and are promoting The Musketeer know what counts—the fight scenes. So… here’s a thought: why don’t they make a movie starring the remarkable action performers who actually do the fights? You know, like a Hong Kong action movie?