'Musketeers': All for nothing


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The best thing that can be said about the new Disney production of Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" is, well . . . at least Emilio Estevez isn't in it.

OK, so? Charlie Sheen is. It isn't a perfect world.

The movie is big, loud, stupid and rambunctious. It's so full of bounding, leaping and sword fighting with a quip in the mouth, a wench on one arm, a sword in one hand, a haunch of beef in the other, and a flagon of wine in still another that it pretty much grinds you into pulp. It ain't a movie, it's a big old Disney entertainment bulldozer locked in high gear and ready to mulch any and all that stand before it, including critics.

The original Dumas tale is only marginally recognizeable, though thankfully the Musketeers' names haven't been changed to Jason, Tad and Scott. But consider that the great Anglo-American filmmaker Richard Lester took two two-hour movies to tell the tale brilliantly back in the early '70s and here ungreat filmmaker Stephen ("Critters") Herek rips through the same material in about a hundred minutes, and you'll begin to see that he's got to leave everything out but the sword fights, the flagons of wine, haunches of beef and the wenches.

That's not axiomatically a crime. Dumas, after all, was a popular entertainer, the Steven Spielberg of his day, and he among all writers of the canon would understand that the point is to entertain the cheap seats, not pay toadying allegiance to a sacred original text. Still, Dumas was one of the great plotters of all times, and his stories were meticulously engineered gizmos of balance, thrust, wit, irony and dramatic satisfaction. So if you tinker, you better know what you're doing.

The screenwriter, David Loughery, doesn't. His most egregious error is to leave the evil deeds of Milady Dewinter, one of the true villainesses of literature high and low, undramatized. When Lana Turner went to the headsman in MGM's 1948 version and Faye Dunaway followed her in Lester's second installment in 1974, both executions felt appropriate and satisfying. Evil was repaid with evil. But when Rebecca De Mornay faces a similar fate, it feels like murder. She's supposed to be a nasty person, but we haven't seen her do anything. The scene left me a little queasy.

Moreover, Loughery has changed Dumas' ornate whirligig of intrigue and revenge into that most familiar of all modern stories, the tale of assassination, turning a 17th-century palace into a Texas book depository and its courtyard into Dealey Plaza, as a sniper takes aim at a head of state. Somehow this seems like a dreary imposition rather than any kind of organic necessity. Where is Gerald Posner when you need him?

Herek also doesn't have much luck with creating an authentic past. Though the film was shot in Europe on real cobblestones and in front of real palaces, it still has that clean EPCOT Center look, as if the geniuses at Disney have satisfied their urge to fix things. All things everywhere. The 17th century, after all, was primarily a festival of mud, blood and feces; lots of clothes, no running water, no toilets. Imagine what it must have smelled like. God bless him, Lester got that sense of a dirty, messy, icky past into his two films, but Herek returns to MGM's Handiwiped yesterday. He makes 17th century Paris seem like Columbia on a day when the mail is late.

The Musketeers aren't nearly so interesting as the villains, and poor D'Artagnan, tyro swordsman and wannabe Musketeer played by Chris O'Donnell, is the least interesting of all: O'Donnell seems far more like the prep school pup he was in "Scent of a Woman" than any kind of real live boy. Of the three big guys, only Kiefer Sutherland gives us some sense of texture and agony as Athos, the most haunted of the three. Sheen doesn't have much to do as the godly Aramis so he doesn't irritate; Oliver Platt tries to do too much as Porthos so he does irritate.

The villains are the best thing going. Tim Curry, in an inflated role of Richelieu, sneers and leers with the best of them; from heaven, Vincent Price must be smiling. And De Mornay's Milady is on a par with her antecedents, so it's a shame that she's not given more to do. The best guy in the film, however, is gravel-voiced and snaky Michael Wincott as Rochefort, Richelieu's No. 1 sword. Wincott, an appealingly villainous presence in both "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" and Ridley Scott's under-rated "1492," is one of those swirling figures of swashbuckling, caparisoned malice that you love to hate. Too bad he's undone at the end by pipsqueaks instead of men.

But that's "The Three Musketeers": One pipsqueak for all and all pipsqueaks for one.

"The Three Musketeers."

Starring Chris O'Donnell, Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen

Directed by Stephen Herek

Released by Walt Disney Pictures

Rated PG

** 1/2

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