Cinema Signal:

. "The Musketeer"

There may well be yet another version of the fabulous swashbuckling sword fighters protecting their king in 17th century France worth making, but this darkly photographed one isn't it. You might think that three dimensional gymnastic swordplay designed by Hong Kong stunt choreographer Xin-Xin Xiong would bring a high level of excitement to any film, and that would appear to be the reason this script was green-lighted in the first place but, alas, an interesting action sequence here and another there doesn't make up for such serious story deficiencies.

Perhaps the filmmakers first went wrong when they looked for an excuse to present yet another musketeer story by fashioning the story around one instead of the usual three, or five, as casting possibilities of the times tend to dictate. As the title so clearly demonstrates, this version differentiates itself from predecessors, as well as from the Alexandre Dumas source material, by being the musketeer. If you had a script that was more than superficial, this conceit might have worked.

We get off to a promising start when Febre (Tim Roth) supposedly representing the crown but actually in the conspiratorial employ of Cardinal Richelieu (Steven Rea), arrives with his troops to the courtyard of young swordfighting student D'Artagnan to demand taxes. D'artagnan's father, once a musketeer, stands up to the black-clad bully and is killed before his son's eyes. D'artagnan, young as he is, picks up a sword and manages to strike Febre across the eye, an injury Febre will never forget.

But neither will D'artagnan forget this insult to his father and his family. He is taken in by an old friend of his father's who trains him to become the greatest swordsman in France. Fourteen years later, a dashing young adult (Justin Chambers), he sets out to find his father's killer, to regroup the previously disgraced musketeers in defense of King Louis XIII and the queen (Catherine Deneuve), to become one himself, and to find love in the person of commoner Constance Bonacieux (Mena Suvari) who is not so common in the looks department and who, conveniently, is the personal dresser of the queen's.

The story of the musketeers is a political one as it revolves around the dangers to the crown, which seem to come from all sides, most of all from the Cardinal, one of the king's trusted advisors. Against that nearby intrigue is the feared invasion by France, but that seems to be a diversion while the Cardinal raises a private army to dispel the king, the queen and take over the crown.

Those to whom history is a total turnoff need not worry. It serves here only as a background and excuse for the fancy swordplay and the dashing heroics. So, for action fans, here is what lies in store for you in this movie: a sword fight in which the combatants defy gravity by clinging to the ceiling of a castle room, a sword fight with the combatants suspended by ropes from the tower turret, a feat calling for considerable balletic skills by all concerned, silly as it is, and then, finally, the climactic fight in which D'artagnan and Febre finally come point to point in a room full of very tall ladders. The fight takes them clamboring across the ladders, one pushing the other over while he escapes a nasty fall by jumping to yet another. At one point the swordsmen balance on a single ladder which becomes a teetering seesaw. Digitally removed cables enlarges the scope of the stuntwork and athletics.

Director Peter Hyams has always made intricate action sequences and dynamically extended camera moves major parts of his movies, as he has done in "Outland", "The Star Chamber" and "Timecop". The problem is that the devotion to this department results in the kind of character superficiality that makes his people seem like little more than comic strip contrivances. There's no time for sensitivity or behavioral development. Relationships are depicted but not well felt. With the lead role little more than an action caricature, the story fails a wider audience which is likely to stay away in droves. It will be enough for teenagers and video gamesters to whom athletic skills provide all the character interest they need. For those of us who yearn for more this film is best left for a switchoffable cable viewing, if that.

In the TV medium, the darkness of the picture will suffer. Hyams served as his own cinematographer, as he often does, and his lighting often results in being unable to see one side of his actors, so lost in black are they. While many of the wider shots are lit with fine dimensionality and texture the closer angles are annoyingly underlit, denying us the full visibility of the characters' expressions.

Estimated cost: $40,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $30,000,000.

Rated S, for Shallow.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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