Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers deserves more attention than it got in North America, where countless critics have flaunted their illiteracy by claiming it butchers the source material. I don’t mean to imply that everyone who hated the movie is lacking in education. I just get annoyed at alleged bibliophiles winging about “the chick from Resident Evil (2002) getting shoehorned into the story” when Milady (Milla Jovovich) proves central to Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel.
Admittedly, her traits have been exaggerated to the point where she might feel at home in a James Bond picture, but the core of the character remains the same: Milady Clarick de Winter is a wily super-spy. Back in the eighteen-forties, men felt more threatened by a woman’s powers of seduction than by her physical prowess, so Dumas wrote the villainess accordingly. Now that boobilicious ass-kicking is all the rage, Anderson has made her into a seventeenth-century Catwoman, right down to her finding convoluted ways to take off half her clothing.
Come to think of it, every character is treated as a super-hero, which again matches the spirit of the source material, but it’s the subtle touches that make this a successful adaptation. Consider the titular musketeers’ casting, which includes Luke Evans, who, as Aramis, manages to convey gravity without coming off gloomy, and Matthew MacFadyen, who plays Athos as a poet first and a war hero second. My favourite performance, though, belongs to Ray Stevenson, who understands Porthos is not a brainless brawler but a courageous bon vivant. This attention to details shows that the creative team actually studied the book instead of scanning its Wikipedia entry.
The Three Musketeers also avoids the pitfall of making D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) the hero, which American adaptations have tended to do by virtue of his being young and vibrant, a better underdog. In fact, the point-of-view character is only meant to evoke the passing of a generation, a chance for the musketeers to pass on their ideals. This is a boy who threatens to kill perfect strangers for insulting his horse, for bumping into him, and for his bumping into them. I’m all for the heroes guiding his transition to manhood, but the little twerp shouldn’t drive the story. For once, he doesn’t. It seems the filmmakers not only read the source material; they also remembered its title.
I guess that leads us to the plot, which is essentially the same as in the novel, except Queen Anne (Juno Temple) is framed for having an illicit relationship with the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom) instead of, you know, having one. Perceiving the young queen as a threat to his influence, Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz) hires Milady to steal her royal necklace and convinces King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox), a bumbling idiot, that its absence would prove the affair. D’Artagnan (grumble, grumble) and the three musketeers race to find Milady and retrieve the necklace, thus saving France from war somehow.
I know what you’re thinking. How can I praise this new version of The Three Musketeers for following the book when the trailers clearly show airships firing at each other over a Parisian skyline? Simply put, I don’t find these fantastical excesses get in the way of the drama. It’s as if screenwriters Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak left the note, “Insert Set Piece”, before every action beat, and the director filled the gaps with imagery from the Final Fantasy video games. Is it bat-poop insane? Of course. Is it fun though? Absolutely.
Really, my only disappointment lies in the depiction of Richelieu, whom I feel lacks nobility. I’ve always interpreted the Cardinal as an anti-hero of sorts, a majestic figure who wants to protect France from its spoiled king and has come to believe the conniving ends justify the means. Christoph Waltz hints at such motivations, but his casual stance and mannered intonations evoke more a jackal than a tiger. Still, he makes a solid antagonist, and we’re a far cry from the cackling maniac in the 1993 adaptation. He looked like a crazed hyena.
In light of that Disney crap fest (Charlie Sheen as Aramis, really?) and the one with the kung fu fights in 2001, I have trouble understanding why everyone is so eager to dump on Anderson’s version of The Three Musketeers, which sticks to the plot, entertains, and captures the essence of the characters. What more could a fan of the franchise ask for? Cartoon dogs? A lame pop ballad sung by three industry veterans in desperate need of a lozenge? Those weren’t in the book, you know.