For years, Paul W.S. Anderson has been making a name for himself by creating his own brand of tacky sci-fi and silly action films. Those are what he does best, can make work, and suit his style perfectly. The Three Musketeers seemed so far off from that that I had no idea how he could make it work – at least on the level that his best films have worked for him. It sounded like an inevitable train-wreck on paper. It seemed like an effort by Anderson to improve his reputation and legitimize his status as a filmmaker by trying to step out of his comfort zone. Especially when you see the cast and spot names like Christoph Waltz and Mads Mikkelsen, it begins to feel like a determined effort to make a “serious” picture.
For those not familiar with the classic Alexandre Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers is a story set in 17th century France. It revolves around a confident, strapping young lad named d’Artagnan who travels to Paris with dreams of becoming one of the King’s Musketeers. It’s there where he ends up meeting the Athos, Porthos & Aramis – the Three Musketeers – and a swashbuckling story follows, filled with themes of friendship, loyalty, treachery, secrets, lies, romance, greed, plus a generous serving of fun and adventure. It’s a period piece, and one that didn’t seem to ever be on the same trajectory as Paul W.S. Anderson’s directorial career.
If Anderson had gone the typical route and created a straightforward adaption of the film, it could have been incredibly boring. What I didn’t anticipate is that Anderson had a craftier plan in mind. Instead of adapting to the needs of the story, he instead adapted the story to suit his needs. He didn’t step out of his comfort zone – he brought the novel into it. The result at the very least is not something that’s artistically bankrupt.
Anderson’s treatment is a watered-down version of the original story, but it still keeps the key elements of the narrative intact. The characters, time, place and central plot are the same, but instead of Louis XIII’s France as we know it, Anderson has infused the world with a steampunk atmosphere, filling it with gigantic blimps as menacing warships, various mechanized gadgets and industrial weaponry. Even visual flair of the film adheres to its ambiance with the fun, vibrant colors and adventurous patterns scattered all over the place. Every aspect of the film that could be designed was done so ornately and with care. Everything has been peppered with such lavish and regal embellishments that if had been nominated for an Oscar for any of its costumes, production design or hair and make-up, I would be behind the nomination 100%.
Visually, it’s a refreshing take on the story, but make no mistake about it, this is still quite a ridiculous film. Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich) is in one scene running down a corridor dodging bullets ala-Matrix; and then in one of Anderson’s best scenes, she’s taking down guards left and right wearing a corset en route to stealing the queen’s jewels. Planchet and Louis XIII are reduced to a crass whipping boy and a bumbling, whiny teen respectably, both for nothing else but cheap laughs. And while Mikkelsen, Waltz, plus the titular trio of Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson and Luke Evans try their best to raise the credibility of this adaptation, Logan Lerman is almost single-handedly able to spoil their efforts as one of the most laughably annoying miscasts of our time.
So while I’d want to argue that The Three Musketeers elevates Anderson’s style with the quality of its source material, the reality is that Anderson actually brings the quality of the story down to his level. He takes a multi-layered narrative and strips it down to its bare essentials and chooses to focus on making it fun, entertaining and look pretty instead. Maybe he’s realized that he simply does not have the skills to make the themes and messages of a good story shine through or maybe he simply doesn’t care to do so; but in any case, The Three Musketeers is fun, entertaining and looks pretty indeed.
Rating: C+ (average)