Directed by Steven Herek
Starring Charlie Sheen, Keifer Sutherland, Chris O’Donnell and Oliver Platt
Swaggering young pup, D’Artagnan (O’Donnell) comes to Paris from his Gascon home to become a Musketeer, like his father before him. En route, he ‘rescues’ Queen Anne and her handmaiden from their own escort, but otherwise arrives without incident, only to find the Musketeers disbanded and reassigned to the infantry.
In quick succession, he manages to be challenged to duels with three swordsmen, who prove to be none other that the last three musketeers not to have surrendered their blades and tunics; Athos (Sutherland), Porthos (Platt) and Aramis (Sheen). The Cardinal’s guards interrupt the first duel, providing a fine opportunity for D’Artagnan to prove his mettle, and with this cursory nod to the plot of the book out of the way, it’s on with the show.
D’Artagnan is arrested by the dastardly Rochefort (Michael Wincott), a former-Musketeer made bad and chief of henching for France’s ersatz ruler, Cardinal Richlieu (Tim Curry). Angered by the increasing independence of the pubescent King Louis XIII – in part under the influence of his love for arranged bride, Anne of Austria – Richlieu sends a freed murderess, Milady de Winter (Rebecca de Mornay), to offer a treaty to his opposite number in Britain – the Duke of Buckingham. Escaping his cell, D’Artagnan overhears this plot, and although recaptured he is rescued from the block by the Musketeers, and off they run to make with the thwarting.
After several botched attempts on their lives, the Musketeers capture Milady, who spills the beans and jumps off a cliff rather than face the headsman. Learning thus that Richlieu plans to kill the king and rule in his place, the Musketeers race back to Paris, muster their comrades and speed to the rescue.
D’Artagnan foils the Cardinal’s sniper, and a battle royale between the Musketeers and the Cardinal’s guards ensues. D’Artagnan kills Rochefort, who – wouldn’t you know it – killed his father, while Athos, Porthos and Aramis chase the Cardinal through his Dante-esque subterranean lair, where the King belts his erstwhile adviser, knocking him to his – presumed – doom.
The Musketeers are reinstated, D’Artagnan joins their number, and the King and Queen are united in love. Aaaah.
What’s wrong with it?
Taking a cue from James Holloway’s old review of The Musketeer, I shan’t dwell overlong on the deviation from Dumas’ original. I do however feel the need to note that what the changes made do is rob the story and its characters of pretty much every vestige of subtlety and interest. Arch-manipulator Richlieu becomes a lecherous pantomime villain, and it’s hard to see how he got as far as he did. Rochefort does a magnificent job of snarling, but lacks the true presence and menace needed for his part. Milady suffers worst, becoming a spineless, whining underachiever, lacking even the courage to face her death with dignity, and failing miserably even to seduce D’Artagnan.
In terms of story, the conflict of love and duty played out in the conflict between the Queen’s affair with Buckingham and her devotion to the country and the treaty represented by her marriage is non-existent here, with the under-aged monarchy trading puppy-dog looks at every opportunity. The Musketeers’ precarious positioning between the good of the kingdom and duty to the king is abandoned in making the Cardinal so absolutely and unmitigatedly evil.
All in all then, the film has no depth, no layers, no subtext, and nothing much to hold the interest.
Chris O’Donnell furthermore, has all the charisma of a carrot. His love interest, played by Julie Delpie, is barely in three scenes, and it’s really quite hard to give a shit about either of them.
There’s also the excruciating ‘Aramis and Porthos teach D’Artagnan to wench’ scene, and the horror that is Paul McGann’s shrieking fop, pursuing D’Artagnan throughout the film’s quieter moments, in order to avenge some imagined slight to his sister’s fairly dubious virtue.
The whole thing also feels rushed, as the film tries to plough through a couple of books worth of plot in under two hours. The result is that the friendship between the Musketeers and D’Artagnan feels distinctly forced, and the romantic subplots are completely flat.
What’s right with it?
Some of the fight scenes are handled with competence, and while their characters are pretty underdeveloped, Sutherland, Sheen and Platt not only shine in the acting stakes but are also clearly having a whale of a time.
Some of the comedy is pretty good.
How bad is it really?
Not so bad as some. It’s quite good fun, but the plot never engages. It’s hard to care about anyone, and with that, it’s hard to get any kind of involvement with the film, however glossy. See the Richard Lester version for plot, then see the Four Musketeers. But don’t bother with Return of the Musketeers, which – sad to say – is a Bad Movie Review waiting to happen.
Mitigating a little, it does have the kind of joy that a Musketeer film ought to have (which is where Return of the Musketeers fell down).
Fleeing the scene of D’Artagnan’s thwarted execution in the Cardinal’s coach, Porthos discovers the Cardinal’s picnic stash, and offers a drink to Athos, who is driving.
Porthos: A little champagne?
Athos: We’re in the middle of a chase, Porthos!
Porthos: You’re right. Something red.
What’s up with…?
- The blatant ignoring of history? Never mind the plot of the book, Richlieu, Louis, Anne; these were real people. Dumas may have taken a lot of liberties, but he kept a few things straight. In here, we have Richlieu dying when the king is fifteen. It’s like the end of Name of the Rose all over again.
- Asian mook? Not the really famous Asian mook who tortured Mel Gibson in the first Lethal Weapon film, but nonetheless an honest-to-God, sword-swinging, kiai-shouting, kung fu-fighting oriental stereotype, in the employ of the Countess de Winter.
- Porthos the Pirate? Not only is Porthos apparently a pirate, as well as a Musketeer, he’s so famous that he gets recognised? From where? If there were pictures, how could he be a Musketeer? And why does this fact have nothing to do with anything else in the film, at all.
Production values – Pretty good. Nice costumes, flashy sets, and decent camera-work. The sound balance is good, and you can make out pretty much all the dialogue. If anything, it’s almost too clean. 4
Dialogue and performances – Uninspired and uninspiring, the script was plainly dull enough to send most of the principles into autopilot. Tim Curry could knock off this kind of cackling cartoon bad-guy in his sleep, and it pretty much looks as though he has done. O’Donnell is unengaging, but the remaining Musketeers at least seem to be having fun. Wincott and de Mornay are pretty flat, but they never really had much chance given the two-dimensionality of the characters. 13
Plot and execution – It takes a lot of work to successfully bring a plot as complex and sophisticated as the Three Musketeers to the screen, and this film pretty much doesn’t bother. The plot is laughably simple, even for a film from our old friends at Disney, and it’s just allowed to roll along without any degree of dynamism. 14
Randomness – Some, but not too much. This film lacks the imagination to be truly random. Of course, ‘Porthos the Pirate’ nets it a lot of points, but other than that we’re in pretty stable territory. 7
Waste of Potential – See above, re. successfully making a film of the Three Musketeers. While not dire and at least quite good fun, this attempt is overall unengaging and a waste of the talent involved. 10