Classic tale blends action, emotions

Alexandre Dumas is a giant of 19th-century literature, and he used to be a big name at the movies, too.

Just a few decades ago, purloining plots from novels such as "The Three Musketeers" and "The Man in the Iron Mask" was a sure-fire trick for Hollywood studios running out of ideas.

Dumas's name doesn't appear on movie posters as often as it used to, but his skill with action and violence has kept him from going entirely out of fashion.

Since action and violence are what today's would-be blockbusters thrive on, I expected a nonstop dose of those commodities as I headed for a preview of "The Count of Monte Cristo," directed by Kevin Reynolds, the auteur of unsubtle epics like "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and the legendary fiasco "Waterworld."

To my pleasant surprise, I encountered a far more entertaining movie than I'd anticipated.

Don't worry, sword-fight fans, there's plenty of flashing steel and fancy footwork as our hero does deadly battle with a rich array of foes. But the filmmakers focus more on personalities and emotions than on tumult and mayhem, and the results amount to old-fashioned fun.

The main character is Edmond Dantes, an illiterate French sailor. His fortunes take a tragic turn when a perfidious pal steals his girlfriend, Mercedes, and a corrupt magistrate condemns him as a courier for Napoleon, for whom our politically dimwitted protagonist once did a favor.

One minute he's pining for the lovely Mercedes, the next he's being hauled off to the slammer - and not just any slammer, but the notorious Château d'If, an island prison where dinner is a bowl of slop and anniversaries are celebrated with a flogging, whether you need it or not.

Surely all is lost. But no! One day into his sentence, Dantes hears an odd tapping noise, and suddenly a hoary head pops up through his floor.

It's the resourceful Abbe Faria, an unjustly imprisoned priest who's been tunneling toward freedom for the past several years and is surprised to learn he's taken a wrong turn and simply burrowed into another cell.

Embracing his new friend, he teaches Dantes how to read, reason, and swing a sword with the best of them. He also helps his protégé make a jailbreak, but in a way neither of them could have expected.

After sojourning with smugglers and accumulating a fortune in buried treasure, Dantes starts the project he nurtured during his captivity: revenge against the scoundrels who betrayed him.

His first step is to debut in society as the Count of Monte Cristo, an enigma to the established French aristocrats but endowed with all the instant respect a mountain of money can buy. He then engineers an ingenious series of psychological power plays, inspired by Napoleon's view of human struggle as a merciless chess match in which timidity never pays.

"The Count of Monte Cristo" was filmed several times between the '30s and the '70s by American and European producers. To distinguish the new version from its predecessors, Touchstone Pictures is hyping its fidelity to the Dumas novel.

While that's not a virtue in itself - good adaptations often stray from their sources to bring out cinematic possibilities - it steers the picture away from gratuitous gore, superfluous sex, and other trendy pitfalls of the action-movie genre.

Not that screenwriter Jay Wolpert is quite as nimble as Dumas in the dialogue department. "Did you suffer?" asks Dantes's long-lost fiancée when she learns of his 13-year captivity. Did she think the answer might be no?

But even howlers like this are entertaining, and most of the actors are savvy enough to make corny lines at least momentarily convincing. Jim Caviezel gives Dantes an appropriately brooding air. Guy Pearce and James Frain are eminently hissable as his enemies.

Luis Guzman stays just shy of campiness as a loyal sidekick, and Richard Harris is just right as the stealthy old cleric. Dagmara Dominczyk is less persuasive as Mercedes, but it's hard being the lone romantic element in what's essentially a guy picture to its bones.

So sail to the box office, swashbucklers. Dumas is back in style.

• r Rated PG-13; contains action-movie violence.

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