“Exposing the Full ‘Monte'”
by Scott Mantz

“The Count of Monte Cristo”
Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce
Directed by Kevin Reynolds

Everything I do, I do it for you! Jim Caviezel and Dagmara Dominczyk are star-crossed lovers in “The Count of Monte Cristo”

Going to the movies in January is a lot like going to a breakfast buffet at one o’clock in the afternoon: there’s simply not much to choose from. For example, since so many of December’s limited releases don’t open wide until January, most of the studios don’t even bother releasing anything new to compete with so many Oscar contenders. What little they do release isn’t anything to write home about, and as a result, January is seen as something of a cinematic dumping ground for less-than-promising studio fare.

Despite the shortage in quality, there’s always the chance that a smaller film could come out of nowhere and–with the help of counter-programming and lots of luck–catch moviegoers by surprise. Last year, that movie was the Julia Stiles teen romance “Save the Last Dance,” which opened amidst of flurry of Oscar contenders and still achieved box office success to the tune of over $91 million.

This year, that film just may be “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Talk about a pleasant surprise, the latest adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic story of love, betrayal, and revenge has everything it needs to fit the bill as an old-fashioned, good-time Saturday matinee. Thanks to picturesque scenery, top-notch action, strong performances, and even a dash of humor, “The Count of Monte Cristo” is a swashbuckling adventure that easily qualifies as the first great movie of the new year.

Good-natured young sailor Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) may not be rich, but thanks to his love for the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), he has everything he needs. His jealous best friend Fernand (Guy Pearce) wants Mercedes for himself, so he conspires with a villainous magistrate (James Frain) to frame Dantes and banish him to the remote island prison Chateau D’Ilf. For the next 13 years, he becomes consumed by thoughts of vengeance, and when he finally escapes, he reinvents himself into the French nobility as the wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. With deft planning, he carries out his revenge against the men who deceived him, but his bitter quest for retribution threatens to blind him from the love he once knew.

Between feature films, TV movies, and various mini-series, there are 18 versions of “The Count of Monte Cristo” listed on the Internet Movie Database. Now admittedly, I haven’t seen any of them, nor have I read the classic book, so I have no basis for comparison. That being the case, I was still thoroughly entertained and impressed with the latest version as a stand-alone piece of work.

Director Kevin Reynolds is no stranger to period adventures, having directed Kevin Costner in 1991’s crowd-pleasing “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” The elements that made that film such a commercial hit–the charismatic main character, the bad guy you love to hate, the beautiful damsel in distress, and the edge-of-your-seat action–are all here, and you simply can’t help but get caught up in the epic feel of the action and adventure.

Jim Caviezel has built quite an impressive resume as a solid performer in films like “The Thin Red Line” and “Frequency,” but “The Count of Monte Cristo” is by far his strongest performance to date. He effortlessly makes the transition from wide-eyed, naive youth to embittered, vengeful man, and there’s no denying his charismatic appeal. He also has great chemistry with Guy Pearce, who seems to relish playing his spoiled, jealous, and former best friend.

In many cases, it falls to the supporting cast members to keep the film fun and light on its feet. Screen legend Richard Harris–whose long beard makes him look like he stepped out of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”–plays Caviezel’s long-time cell mate who teaches him how to read, fence, and plan his escape. The always reliable Luis Guzman provides the perfect amount of comic relief and almost steals the show as Caviezel’s right-hand-man, and what would any period adventure be without a stunning, strong-willed beauty, here played by Dagmara Dominczyk.

Given its paint-by-numbers storyline, it’s safe to say that we’ve seen this sort of thing before, and in many ways, the original “Count of Monte Cristo” was the “Gladiator” of its day. For our day, it may be a simple case of been-there, done-that, but when it’s as fun and as exciting as this, there’s no reason why moviegoers–even those familiar with the original material–can’t go there again and re-live the adventure one more time.