- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

Depending on your range of expectations, "The Count of Monte Cristo" looms as a mild to keen disappointment. I think mild is the more deserving niche. The movie displays rich scenic resources (Malta doubles for the settings near Marseilles and Ireland for those near Paris) and offers an amusing contribution from Richard Harris. He plays Abbe Faria, the indispensable mentor of Edmond Dantes during years of unjust imprisonment at the dread island lockup Chateau D'If.

Even some of the pivotal miscalculations in this second-rate but diverting adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic have entertainment value. For example, there are the curiously miscast antagonists: Jim Caviezel as Edmond and Guy Pearce as treacherous Fernand Mondego, the youthful and titled friend who betrays him. Jealousy remains the key motive because Fernand weds Edmond's beloved Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) soon after conspiring in Edmond's arrest and confinement, rashly presumed to be a death sentence.

The somnambulistic Mr. Caviezel, previously seen in "Angel Eyes" and "The Thin Red Line," shows fitful but encouraging signs of snapping out of his bewildered trance under the direction of Kevin Reynolds. However, the opportunity for a dashing makeover after Dantes absorbs the teaching of Faria, escapes Chateau D'If and emerges as the fabulously wealthy avenger Monte Cristo isn't exactly seized with an iron grip. Not even a balloon descent and a regal wardrobe decisively transform Mr. Caviezel from a sad sack to a swashbuckler.

At least he's in there pitching. It seems to help if he's partnered with playful actors: Luis Guzman comes aboard as Monte Cristo's factotum, Jacopo, soon after Mr. Harris has to depart.

Mr. Caviezel's slight improvement is overbalanced by Mr. Pearce's precipitous slump. Obviously capable of distinctive performances, illustrated most recently in "Memento," Mr. Pearce degenerates into a petulant hoot as Fernand. A funny hairpiece always keeps him near the titter zone; there hasn't been an eyesore this misguided since Bruce Willis wore his last rug.

Nevertheless, part of the silliness appears self-inflicted and deeply internalized. Mr. Pearce seems to be sucking in his already concave cheeks so severely that his chin line looks tormented and deformed. There's far more facial tension than there needs to be in this particular wretch. A debonair, blithely contemptuous villain might provide the movie with a more satisfying contrast in leading men.

Miss Dominczyk can't shake off a monotone that sounds so disembodied you're never sure if she's being dubbed from a very great distance. Although Polish by birth, she has been an American resident since girlhood and evidently made a splash in the theater department at Carnegie-Mellon University as an undergraduate. There appears to be no reason for her body and voice to seem so estranged.

More than one mystery clings to suffering Mercedes, though. Her bosom seems to undergo curious expansions in the final sequences. Some kind of special effect is at work, but it can't be rationalized all that securely by the passions surging within the character at these decisive moments. The role lacks legitimate opportunities to "grow" on us. Perhaps someone thought it would suffice if the leading lady enjoyed a cosmetic growth spurt before the fadeout.

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