Critics tend to sharpen their knives whenever a Paul W.S. Anderson movie comes down the pike, which I don’t think is quite fair. He’s never going to win any Oscars, but he embraces the earthy charms of his grindhouse milieu and never apologizes for it. There’s a rough honor in that, and if you’re in the right mood – say for his Death Race remake or some of the better moments in the Resident Evil films – it can be a real kick in the pants. The Three Musketeers improves dramatically if you take it in that vein. Anderson knows how to buckle swashes with the best of them and he permeates this updating of the classic Dumas novel with an infectious sense of joy.
Unfortunately, it’s still dumber than a bag of hammers. Even if one accepts its knowing absurdity and overblown bombast (an absolute necessity if you want to survive the experience), The Three Musketeers makes no damn sense. It ricochets around its steampunk 17th century like a deranged pinball game, throwing dashes of Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Jack Sparrow in to distinguish it from earlier incarnations of the novel. It features flying dirigibles, protean scuba gear and Milla Jovovich doing an action-girl slide in a full-length ballroom gown, but can’t figure out a single reason for us to care.
Part of the problem lies in subtleties. The Three Musketeers relies on political machinations as much as sword fights, with different factions launching elaborate schemes and a broken heart proving just as important as a duel at dawn. Anderson doesn’t do those things – he doesn’t even know where to start – and his earnest efforts to bring actual storytelling to the equation become laughable and painful in equal measures.
The cast, at least, seems to be in on the joke. The familiar scenario pits the famous trio – Athos (Luke Evans), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Matthew MacFadyen) – against the evil Cardinal Richlieu (Christoph Waltz) and his allies Milady (Jovovich) and Buckingham (Orlando Bloom) whose death blimp threatens all of France in some vague way. Each of them approaches the project with tongues firmly in cheek, which helps when the young D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) and his lady love (Gabriella Wilde) flash their too-earnest smiles. Of the lot, Bloom actually embraces the spirit of the endeavor most eagerly, with a ridiculous pompadour and a hammy sneer that says “lighten up kids” in no uncertain terms. The rest of the cast endeavors to follow his example, and keep the film elevated as much as they can.
Sadly, they can’t make us care enough to keep track of who did what to who, or follow a script more full of holes than a rusty strainer. Every new set piece comes chock full of head-scratchers like dead guardsmen who no one ever misses or a wrecked vessel that mysteriously springs back to life in the next scene. Ridiculous I can handle, but the leaps required to accept the tomfoolery on display would make Superman think twice.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Anderson ultimately throws in the towel and just starts blowing shit up. Primitive airship battles fight for screen time with more traditional duels and rescues, as the CGI clings madly to fragments of a disjointed and nonsensical plot. It’s as if The Three Musketeers suddenly loses interest in itself, then rides out the string hoping that no one will notice. In a film based so much on spectacle, that represents wishful thinking at its most desperate. Anderson is what he is and has nothing to be ashamed of on that front. But he can’t meet the standards of his own canon here, and the film really has nothing else to fall back on. The Three Musketeers ultimately proves a thoroughly depressing experience, caught between brazenly embodying its guilty pleasures and trying to convince us that they don’t exist.