The Alexander Dumas book The Three Musketeers is one of the most exciting books of its era and still offers a thrilling adventure with the coming-of-age tale of D’Artagnon leaving home to join up with the fabled Musketeers, acting in the service of King Louis XIII against the evil Cardinal Richelieu. Sword fights, treachery, beautiful women, honor, it’s a truly epic tale.
Which is why it’s been adapter to cinema again and again, with predictably mixed results. In fact, this Paul W.S. Anderson production is the 28th time the Dumas story has made it to the screen, and there are rumors of another adaptation to be released early in 2013.
With a story this familiar, it’s necessary for the writers to come up with a new twist, a take that weaves in the three Musketeers — Athos, Porthos and Aramis — and the familiar characters of Richelieu, Milady de Winter, the Duke of Buckingham and Rochefort with something new, something that’ll capture our modern sensibilities. For this version, it’s an airship that the Duke of Buckingham (a completely wasted Orlando Bloom, in a surprisingly minor role on screen) uses to visit King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox). The King must have an airship of his own, but evil Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz) instead secretly builds one for his own nefarious purposes, having stolen the plans from the Duke by way of the feminine wiles of the equally evil Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich).
Then there’s the acting. While the cast was strong and each has turned in solid performances in films like Lord of the Rings, Inglorious Bastards, Death at a Funeral, Robin Hood, and The Book of Eli, none of them brought much more than minimal effort to The Three Musketeers, and it really hurts the film, ranging from Fox’s painfully foppish performance as King Louis XIII to Jovovich’s disengaged attempt at one of the great femme fatales of the big screen, Milady de Winter.
This is a completely forgettable version of a tremendously entertaining story and I strongly encourage you to check Netflix or the local video store for one of the many superior productions that preceded it. Yes, there are some nice visual effects, but not enough to justify a $10 ticket. You’ve been warned.
There are scenes that are just weird and don’t fit into the narrative at all, notably including an aquatic opening sequence that would have made a lot more sense in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are also a ridiculous number of plot holes and anachronisms, including one scene where Rochefort (Mads Mikkelsen) toys with a modern butterfly knife. A style of knife that isn’t produced until at least a hundred years later. Did the prop-maker just not pay attention to the setting at all? Then there’s the scene where D’Artagnon (Logan Lerman) finds that his horse has received a written citation from Aramis (Luke Evans) for despoiling the city street. Unsure what it means, Aramis explains to him that “it’s a ticket”. What the heck?
More than that, though, there’s the whole storyline of warships of the air, invented by Leonardo da Vinci, with the plans long-hidden in a secret Venetian crypt with defenses more suited to Indiana Jones than Milady and her billowing dress. Those plans are stolen by the Duke of Buckingham and he creates one of these airships then flaunts it to King Louis XIII on a visit. As you can see from the publicity still below, the airships are makeshift hot air balloons with the incredibly heavy weight of a full wooden ship — complete with cannons! — harnessed below.
Airships from the daft 2011 film The Three Musketeers
Besides all the reasons that this wouldn’t actually fly, it also produces an extended aerial battle scene between the Musketeers — D’Artagnan, Aramis, Athos (Matthew Macfadyen) and Porthos (Ray Stevenson) — and Milady all on the Duke’s ship, which they’ve stolen without a peep from the British, and Rochefort and his minions on the larger French airship that seems so much like a rip-off from the far more entertaining Pirates of the Caribbean series that the French airship literally has a silver skeleton figurehead. Was it sitting around the prop department?
For any adaptation of The Three Musketeers to work, the cast needs to balance the passion and youthful zeal of D’Artagnon with the jaded experience of the Musketeers, who represent the other end of the road of honor, obedience to the crown and adventure. Is a life of service worth the rewards at the end, when the political winds can completely change your fortune? Unfortunately, the performances, particularly that of young Logan Lerman, do not speak of honor and zeal as much as pigheaded ego and pride. He just didn’t demonstrate any actions that would explain why the other Musketeers would bring him into their world.
And that’s ultimately the great failing of this version of The Three Musketeers. The production team has managed to take a wonderful story and turn it into a demo reel for a special effects house, replete with anachronistic scenes, a wobbly narrative and action scenes that are completely unbelievable even as they show off the latest CG capabilities. A completely forgettable version. Just skip it.