Saturday, May 5, 2012
A Tale of Two Movies
About a month ago I was looking for something to watch one evening and found myself scrolling through the PPV movie listing. I ended up choosing the 2011, big budget re-make of 'The Three Musketeers'. It follows at least ten other big screen adaptations of the original novel, stretching back to the early days of film. Not too surprising, since the excellent book by Alexandre Dumas has everything a moviegoer could want in a film; adventure, action, heroes, villains, honor, suspense, cloak & dagger politics (with real daggers!) and even a touch of romance. Now I'd seen the previews for this rendition before its release and had been a little leery of what looked like some over the top FX and stunt work, but thought, "why not? It's only $5."
It became obvious, less than two minutes into the very first scene that a mistake had been made. And by mistake, I mean the fact that the script had not been burned immediately thus saving us all from a foolish waste of time and money. To say the film was a disaster would be an understatement. But it wasn't just the stupid plot points and dialogue, it was the obvious attempt to take the core story and make it 'bigger' and 'bolder' so it could match recent action adventures like the Mission Impossible franchise. In fact, it felt like MI was exactly what they were trying to emulate. The fancy gadgets, many patently impossible for the 17th Century, the gratuitous use of elaborate slow motion action sequences and the 'elite team saves the world' plot all come straight out of the 21st century action playbook. Ironically, all the attempts to 'update' the production did nothing but destroy the things that made The Three Musketeers such a great story. I felt none of the brotherly camaraderie that marked the original story. It was just too contrived and too slick to allow any serious emotion to creep in. Without that, it's just hollow and mechanical.
I can't really lay too much blame on the actors, either. I'd say that it was actually pretty well cast, for the most part. But no matter the actor's skills, they couldn't make bad dialogue work or make the unexpectedly contemporary language and phrasing less jarring. It was as if the screenwriters randomly forgot in what time period the film was taking place and each time it occurred I was yanked out of the moment. Did Cardinal Richelieu just say, "yep"?! I lay the blame for this embarrassment solely at the feet of the screenwriters and the director. Suffice it to say that it was one of the worst, big budget Hollywood productions I've ever seen. I've seen worse films, but those were all 'B' movies so at least I wasn't surprised.
Contrast this disaster with, in my opinion, the best Three Musketeers adaptation, Richard Lester's two part, star studded production from 1973-74. Its cast list included Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain and others. It holds surprisingly close to the original text, hence the need for two parts which were dubbed 'The Three Musketeers' and 'The Four Musketeers'. They didn't try to make the time period more glamorous than it was, letting you see the grittiness of early 1600s Paris. It also eschewed attempts to update the story to fit modern standards and instead let you see the myopia and narcissism of the French and British aristocracy contrasted with the other levels of French society from servant to soldier to spy to Cardinal and King. It also had some top notch sword play. Not the silly, dainty slapping of blades, but real brawls. Fights that utilized numerous styles that transcended simple fencing. Put simply, it felt authentic.
What really stands out about the 70's production, in comparison to the 2011 version, is that it's not trying to be more than it is. There are no gratuitous explosions or superhuman feats. The Musketeers were master swordsmen to be sure, but they got injured and they fought dirty. The '70's films focused heavily on the core story of protecting the Queen from the Cardinal's machinations and D'Artagnon's ongoing attempts to protect his love, Constance, from Milady's revenge. The clash of England vs. France was an important but tertiary plot. Contrast that with the 2011 version's grandiose theme of laughingly unbelievable airborne DaVinci war machines and you see a prime example of one of Hollywood's biggest issues of late. If the movie is classified as 'Action', then it has to be huge and filled with pyrotechnics and special effects. The heroes have to be almost invincible and capable of inhuman feats. And worst of all, the plot and dialogue are all but an afterthought. I can't count the number of films I've seen that were mediocre, but that could have been great if they had really made an effort on the plot. Instead far too many filmmakers seem fine with 'good enough'.
I don't know if the situation is worse now than 30 years ago, but it seems that way. I think the late '80s and early 90's marked the beginning of the trend and the mastering of computer effects in the early 2000s only cemented the bad practices. Instead of the special effects and stunts adding flavor to the film, too often nowadays they are the film. I don't suppose this is likely to change anytime soon. At least not as long as these monstrosities generally make money. But it is a sad state of affairs to see so many action films become little more than big budget B movies.