It’s exceedingly good to see Luis Guzmán looking so vibrantly out of place in Kevin Reynolds’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Guzmán plays a pirate named Jacopo who is about to be killed by his fellows, for some infraction of the pirate code. Just at this moment (which takes place in the during the early 19th century, near France), the film’s ostensible hero, Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel, looking almost as perplexed as he did in Angel Eyes), comes washing up on the pirate island’s shore and gets into his own scuffle with them. Offered the chance to kill Jacopo in a fight or be killed himself, Edmond says okay. And then, so gallant is Edmond that when he has the chance to finish off his opponent, he does not. This is apparently fine with the rest of the pirates, as the film quickly moves on to some other scene, with Jacopo ensconced as Edmond’s grateful servant-for-life.
Indeed, Jacopo proves himself a very worthy servant, but more importantly, he hovers around the edges of the rest of The Count of Monte Cristo‘s preposterous plot, representing an almost mischievous, slightly skewed perspective on the upper class folly going on before him. And if there’s anything screenwriter Jay Wolpert’s overheated adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale, it’s a mischievous, slightly skewed perspective. Unfortunately, Guzmán’s Jacopo doesn’t make his appearance until almost halfway through the movie, which means that there’s a lot of set-up to get to the profound insight he offers.
The story of Edmond’s journey that pirate island is long and tragic (the film runs two and a half hours). He first appears as a generally happy, if “common,” fellow in Marseilles, in love with the perfect upper-class girl, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominiczyk), and believing that all is hunky dory between himself and flamboyant and extremely competitive fop of a best friend, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce). What Edmond doesn’t know is that Fernand, also upper class and lusting after Mercedes, resents the heck out of him. The friends both work for a shipping company, and after an unexpected detour to Elba, where Edmond stupidly agrees to deliver a letter for the exiled Napoleon, they return home to learn that their employer is promoting Edmond and essentially dissing Fernand. When he sees Edmond celebrating his good fortune with a little open-air sex with Mercedes, you can almost see the steam coming out of Fernand’s ears: What to do? What to do!?
Well, he comes up with a doozy of a scheme to ruin poor Edmond bigtime, enlisting the help of an unpleasant local magistrate, Villefort (James Frain), to have Edmond arrested for treason. As the uniforms drag him off, Edmond is naturally horrified: “Why? Why?” he beseeches Fernand, who replies curtly, “It’s complicated… because you’re the son of a clerk and I’m not supposed to want to be you!” Aha! The complications of such ardor are evidently quite beyond Edmond, whose mopey, bedraggled demeanor only makes you sympathetic with the infinitely more charismatic Fernand’s view of things. Within minutes, it seems, Edmond is whisked off to prison on the ominously named Isle d’If, forever, while Villefort tells and Mercedes and her family that he has been executed.
Though he might count himself fortunate that he’s not stuck in an Iron Mask, things do look mighty grim for Edmond. He’s locked in a dank cell, gets one plate of some foul-looking goop a day, and his psycho warden (Michael Wincott) decides to help him keep track of time by whipping him once a year, on the anniversary of his arrival. But lo, some years into his new life, during which he focuses solely on the vengeance he will wreak on Fernand if he ever escapes, Edmond receives an unexpected visitor to his cell. A fellow prisoner and priest named Faria (Richard Harris, who is the only actor here, other than Guzmán, who visibly understand that this whole business is ridiculous) pops up through the floor: “Forgive my intrusion!” Faria has mistaken the location as the “outside” he’s trying to reach by digging (and he has been digging for five years). In exchange for some help with this project (which he calculates they can finish together in eight years), Faria “offers knowledge,” that is, he teaches Edmond history, philosophy, economic theory, a s well as how to read and swashbuckle. Bonding and digging montages ensue.
When the old man inevitably dies, he bequeaths unto Edmond a map leading to an unspeakably humungous treasure. And when Edmond inevitably does escape, he hooks up with Jacopo, who helps him carry off this weighty bounty and carry out his revenge. When they get to Marseilles, Edmond pretends to be the Count of Monte Cristo, and incredibly, no one sees through this ruse, though Mercedes has an inkling that he’s her long-lost beau when she realizes he is twisting his hair in the nervous way that Edmond used to (this realization is underlined, of course, by the obligatory close-up). Then again, it appears that prison and torture have agreed with Edmond, because everyone else in the film has aged pretty badly by now — some 15 years after his removal — with gray hair and prosthetically wrinkled faces, while he remains fit and attractive, with youthful visage and remarkably pearly white teeth.
There’s one more bit of bad news for Edmond/the Count: not only has his father hanged himself in distress and shame, but that perfect girl Mercedes has up and married his the dastardly Fernand. Not to mention that she also has a 15-yearold son who appears to be following in Fernand’s low-down footsteps. At this point, Edmond and Jacopo initiate the Vengeance Plot, making the “Count” the talk of the town (he arrives in a hot air balloon, accompanied by fireworks, throws lavish parties, etc.), so that he can surreptitiously engineer a major embarrassment and wreck Fernand’s life.
Even if you haven’t read the novel, or seen 15+ other films that have been made from it, you can easily guess where The Count of Monte Cristo is headed. Aside from its sheer spectacle — shot by Andrew Dunn, it is a sumptuous, if slow-moving, business — the primary reason to see it is that it lets my boy Luis wear gold knickers. He makes the most of the opportunity.