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Non-Review Review: The Three Musketeers (2011)

“Guilty pleasure.” That’s a phrase that feels strangely appropriate when referring to Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers. It’s silly and daft, and has two fairly fundamental flaws, on top of the cheesiness that’s going to divide audiences straight down the middle. However, despite these fairly central and hard-to-avoid problems, it also features a knowing self-awareness, an appealingly straight-forward approach to the fact that is so very silly, a (mostly) great cast and some rather wonderful steam-punk production design. It’s not going to appeal to everybody, but I actually warmed quite a bit to it.

Four of a kind?

“You know what your problem is, boy?” Rochefort demands of D’Artagnan at one point. “You read too many books.” A cynical critic might suggest that the creative minds behind this adventure read too few. Somewhere, there’s a truly great adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Three Musketeers waiting to be brought to the screen in a respectful and considered manner. This is not that film. And, to be honest, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. “We’re obsolete,” an introspective Aramis confesses at one point, and I can’t help but feel the movie never rebukes that idea – it’s too busy overloading the core concept with “airships” and aerial warfare to really give us a sense of who these characters are, and why they aren’t outdated or obsolete. That said, if you can get past that fairly large initial hurdle, it’s good fun.

The movie opens with what’s effectively a nineteenth century James Bond cold open, with the three musketeers going on a mission for “king and country.” Asked what their brief is, one responds, “Whereever we’re sent. Whatever France needs.” They’re effectively an old-time black-ops team, tasked with infiltration missions and other dirty work. This isn’t the largest departure from Dumas’ text. However, it actually surprisingly well. At times, I’ve felt Paul W.S. Anderson is too light on substance, but here it works. You could almost imagine Roger Moore coming out with some of the stuff we see here. Ambushing a target and his companion in black robes, Aramis confesses after hauling the gentleman overboard, “I’m not really a priest.” The young woman responds, “I’m not really a lady.” And Aramis has ten minutes to fill in his top secret black-ops schedule, so we cut away discreetly.

A Cardinal Sin...

It is the sort of camp we associate with the Roger Moore Bond films, but it works infinitely better here, if you ask me. Despite the prologue featuring a top secret mission, the team never seem like the sort of cold-blooded assassin that we were asked to accept Moore’s James Bond to be, and Anderson wisely increases the saturation to make sure that everything on screen seems the brightest possible shade of a primary colour. It’s a movie about people in funny clothes prancing around and waving swords at each other, after all, if that sort of set-up doesn’t lend itself better to camp than any other subject matter, I don’t know what does. As much as may appreciate serious period drama, there’s just something so theatrical and grand about that sort of design, one that doesn’t suffer if you refuse to take it too seriously.

Helping the matter along is the fact that the movie is very clearly in on the joke. Anderson doesn’t have an all-star cast, but he does have an incredible ensemble of quality character actors that any film fan will recognise. These are performers like Mads Mikkelsen, Christoph Waltz, Ray Stevenson, Matthew Macfadyen and Orlando Bloom, who are overtly aware of the fact that they aren’t making a serious piece of art – they’re wearing silly clothes and waving swords at one another, while chewing down on the scenery. Bloom has clearly been studying Johnny Depp, and seems to relish the opportunity to play a card-carrying evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil cad with no motivation to speak of and a flying ship because… well, didn’t we all want a flying ship at some point? Waltz and Mikkelson are clearly the bad guys because they have funny accents. Mikkelson even has an eye-patch and dodgy goatee to boost his “bad guy” credentials.

Mads World...

And there’s never a sense that the movie is taking itself too seriously. Hell, Rochefort has the most effective means of ending a duel I’ve ever seen, in one brilliant moment. The Cardinal is well aware of the tropes and clichés of this kind of story, sarcastically wondering if his embarrassed guard brings good news. At one point, D’Artagnan gets a citation for allowing his horse to defecate in public, and he asks for clarification, “In French?” The female lead, played by Milla Jovovich, is actually identified via caption as “Milady.” Ray Stevenson, in his heavy and distinctly not-French accent, utters the line, “Vive la France.”

The film is clearly aware that it’s just popcorn entertainment, and never suffers from trying to convince us otherwise. It even features a climactic sword fight on top of Notre Dame, a scene that might as well have had “look! France!” superimposed over it – I’m surprised the didn’t just stick the Eiffel Tower in there, history be damned! After all, it isn’t like the British were flying airships designed by DiVinci, is it? It’s all very daft, but it knows this as well as we do, and everybody’s in on the joke.

Blooming trouble...

Everybody, that is, except Logan Lerman, which brings me to the first major fault that film. I don’t know why, but it seems increasingly hard to find young actors who can act – I don’t know if it’s because casting directors are shallow or because of established fanbases or even just bad decision-making on the part of executives, but the movie is based around the young and plucky D’Artagnan, who is easily the weakest element of the whole film. I don’t know if it’s the script or the actor, to be entirely honest.

The script asks the young actor to deliver a variation on a classic scene from A Fistful of Dollars, one of the moments that even I (despite my phenomenal threshold for cheese) cringed in response to. But an equally young actor, Freddie Fox, does just as well in the awkwardly-written role of King Louis. I think it’s a combination of both, but the movie breaks down any moment Lerman is at the centre of the action. It really does feel like the movie would be a lot better if you simply cut D’Artagnan out of the film.

Frankly my dear, I don't give a (Notre) Dame...

The second flaw, which is just as significant, is the ending. I don’t desire to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it, so I’ll simply say that almost nothing is resolved. Virtually all the character dynamics and conflicts are left dangling, in hope of an inevitable sequel. The problem is that this doesn’t make for a very satisfying final act. I had expected what turns out to be the final set piece to be a prelude to a huge final confrontation, but it just sort of ends… with all the stuff hinted at and developed throughout the movie, and most of the villains, still in play. It just doesn’t work, and it retroactively weakens the entire movie.

It’s especially frustrating because Alexandre Dumas actually wrote a sequel to The Three Musketeers, one that the writers and director could easily stick some airships into to help them build a franchise. Imagine how incredibly camp a steam-punk The Man in the Iron Mask could be. I honestly would be disappointed if the mask didn’t breathe fire or acid or something. I’m not even being sarcastic. If Anderson can sell me on trip-wire-as-eighteenth-century-lasers, I can go along with anything. It just feels like a waste of a lot of set-up, on what ultimately feels hugely pointless. Surely they could fully handle this particular threatto the French monarchy without over-extending an already simple narrative across another film? But what do I know?

Not as sharp as they used to be...

Still, it’s mostly quite enjoyable, if you can stomach the idea of flying ships and bright colours in your Dumas adaptations. Anderson is a director who handles style much better than substance, and the movie actually looks quite good. I normally scoff at slow motion and quick cuts, but Anderson knows what he’s doing with them. They’re still clichéd tools, but they’re at least applied well. There is a rather lovely scene early in the film where the musketeers take on forty of the Cardinal’s private guard, and it illustrates that Anderson knows his craft a lot better than most detractors would suggest.

It’s a diverting film, something that is like cinematic junk food – it’s something that doesn’t require too much engagement and won’t upset too many people on a family outing. The campy nature of the film is going to be divisive, but I think it fits well enough with the style of the movie. There are two huge flaws that hold the film back from an unqualified recommendation, but it’s an effective “silly action film.” Whether or not that’s the adaptation of The Three Musketeers that you’ve been waiting for, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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