I'm completely unqualified to speculate on what motivated wonderful actors like Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz, Mads Mikkelsen, or Til Schweiger to lend their time to Paul W.S. Anderson's The Three Musketeers. This latest take on Alexandre Dumas' swashbuckling work certainly couldn't have had much going for it on the page, given how clunky, awkward, and awful most of the dialog is, how relentlessly unpleasant the heroes are, and worse, how entirely lacking in fun the whole movie is. And let me quantify "fun" here, if I may: it's any time the events onscreen push forward in a way that makes you excited and or intrigued about what's coming next as opposed to grimly aware that you've been watching The Three Musketeers for 45 minutes and there's still 55 to go.
I could love a ridiculous, over-the-top take on The Three Musketeers featuring airship battles, preposterous gadgets and slow-motion, martial arts-infused sword fights. That's all kind of part of my constitution. But nearly everything onscreen here is drained of life, cut to hell, over-explained, and doomed almost from the start by a sense of humor that could kindly be described as awkward and more pointedly be seen as "funny if you've only just become accustomed to jokes."
The lack of humor, the goofy plot involving (as a Musketeers story must) the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu (Waltz) to engineer a war between France and England in order to step in and take over for the embarrassingly foppish child King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox, acting as hard as he can through his teeny tiny little mustache and heels), aided by his double agent spy, Milady (Mill Jovovich, racking up a movie almost as bad as Ultraviolet). Milady is the envoy to the Duke of Buckingham, Orlando Bloom (almost out-fopping the king), who we're introduced to after he and Milady pull a double-cross on the Musketeers at the start of the film.
I think we could forgive the thin, flavorless gruel of the plot which revolves around a stolen necklace and even the casting of Stevenson, Matthew Macfadyen, and Luke Evans as dour, murderous takes on the Mukseteers if the action woven in and out of those pesky plot bits were at all memorable. I mean that given the awkward construction of the action scenes, the constant cutting, the frequent flips in the action that destroy most orientation in space, I literally have trouble remembering the action scenes because I'm not completely sure what happened in all of them.
First, a word about Anderson's action scenes: the man remains locked in Matrix-style elaborations for his big action setpieces, relying on slow motion martial acrobatics to propel his scenes from one bit to the next. And that's fair enough: I'm not able to say I'm immune to some of the secondhand ridiculousness of like the infinite clones fight that kick off his Resident Evil: Apocalypse.
But here, space and the characters' orientation in it is often unclear and sometimes inscrutable. Consider the Cooper Square scene where the Musketeers and D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman) face off against the Cardinal's men. Here are the things we're intended to know, see, and understand: it's four against forty in a town square with a crowd of onlookers cheering the heroic Musketeers on as they deliver choreographed justice to those slimy city guards. In practice, here's how the action plays out: D'Artagnan launches himself onto a crane-like piece of construction while the Musketeers move outward towards the Cardinal's men, and in the same time that D'Artagnan is swinging from point A to point B, we've cut one or two times to other Musketeers in their own sword fights. Meanwhile, it's established at the beginning of the scene that the Cardinal's men have taken the balconies, forcing all of the locals into their homes. But without anything establishing it, we hear an almost football stadium-style roar from the crowd of 30 or so civilians that materialize on the balcony to root for the good guys. It doesn't help that the bulk of the action is over fairly quickly, so we never get the sense that the Musketeers have done more than beat up (or kill) about a dozen or so men.
And it goes on and on like this throughout the movie and visually, it starts to make about as much sense as the script and I can only imagine how much more difficult it was to follow in its theatrical 3D presentation. It's frankly, a lot of visual noise on top of being charmless, joyless, and at times, cheap looking. There's really nothing at all to recommend it.
The Three Musketeers will be available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD March 13th.