Almost everything that could possibly go wrong, did, in Paul W. S. Anderson's misbegotten attempt to turn Alexandre Dumas' elegant classic, The Three Musketeers, into a cheesy, CGI-laden superhero franchise. If you love Dumas' rousing tale as much as I do (as you might remember from my previous blog), you'll cringe at the concept of Athos as an underwater ninja, Aramis wrapped in a cape swooping off tall buildings like Batman, Porthos as a Hulk-like strongman pulling his chains out of stone walls to attack his prison guards. These guys are assassins, committing mayhem with soulless efficiency; it's half an hour into the movie before anybody even draws a sword.
Anderson makes an oily bouillabaisse out of Dumas's sprightly storyline. In this version, childish King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox) and his poised young Queen Anne (Juno Temple) are in love with each other, but too shy to speak of it. Gone is the neglected queen's dangerous liasion with the Duke of Buckingham, played by Orlando Bloom as a fop in an Elvis pompadour, now temporarily in league with the villainous Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich). (There's a dreary Pirates of the Caribbean-like sameness to the way all the villains keep double-crossing each other.)
Most egregious is the notion that Milady was once a veritable Fourth Musketeer, and Athos' true love. Anyone who actually understands what the story is about will recoil at the idea of Athos, the noblest, most honorable and ruthless of all the Musketeers, ever allying himself with the faithless, opportunistic Milady—especially as she's portrayed by Jovovich as a pouty little tart. (This movie is so amped up, Milady can't simply enter a room by stealth; she has to bungee-jump off the top of a stone angel on the roof—in a corset, yet—in broad daylight, to a balcony below.)
Another pointless addition to the plot is a set of plans stolen out of a secret "Da Vinci Vault," for a flying warship, a ferociously armed wooden sailing ship under an enormous balloon. This could be a very cool thing if handled with any kind of panache, but let's face it, the movies haven't gotten steampunk right since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Remember The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Or, worse, Van Helsing?) When this warship lumbers into view and starts raining down random destruction from an arsenal of cannon that blast away like machine guns, it's just ugly. And when two of them go into battle against each other, it's ridiculous how much time is wasted in the ships strafing each other's decks before someone finally gets the bright idea to blow a hole in the other's balloon.
Equally full of hot air is the jokey, creaky dialogue, stuffed with lugubrious, faux-arch witticisms. (Although I did smile when Constance (Gabrielle Wilde) tells Logan Lerman's gauche young puppy of a D'Artagnan, "In the battle of wits, you, sir, are unarmed.")
What else did I like in this movie? Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson and Luke Evans are terrific as Athos, Porthos, and Aramis—in the fleeting moments they get to play the characters Dumas wrote. And there are some evocatively imagined CGI vistas of 17th Century Paris.
The great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen plays antagonist Count de Rochefort exactly as the material demands—as a cartoon—fortunately disguised in a plumed hat and eyepatch most of the time. Less fortunate in Christoph Waltz as evil Cardinal Richelieu, who seems more peevish than dangerous, and about as sinister as Snidely Whiplash. Any director who can't get purring menace out of Christoph Waltz, of all people, playing Cardinal flipping Richelieu, obviously doesn't know what he's doing.
There's nothing here to challenge Richard Lester's classic 1973 film adaptation. And it certainly won't make anyone forget the dash and brio of last summer's live SSC production.