"All for one, one for all."
It's among the most recognizable mottos in all of literature—and not really because of books. This rallying cry of Alexandre Dumas' titular heroes has been immortalized in close to 30 movies (and several TV series) dating as far back as 1903. As NPR's Bob Mondello points out, that works out to a cinematic reboot of this durable old tale about once every four years.
So what happens when the director responsible for such movies as Resident Evil: Afterlife, Death Race and Mortal Kombat takes the helm? You get a very familiar story—with more explosions, that's what. The broad brushstrokes of Paul W.S. Anderson's take on Dumas' story is relatively faithful to the original … with a few new twists, turns and some high-tech (for the 17th century) infusions, courtesy of Leonardo da Vinci.
Here, the Three Musketeers—Athos, Aramis and Porthos—find themselves in Venice, along with presumed ally (and Athos' paramour) Milady de Winter. Their clandestine task: stealing into da Vinci's vault to pilfer plans for a futuristic aerial gunship. (Think the Hindenburg with a Spanish galleon dangling beneath. That's one of the new bits, by the way.) Milady's treacherous betrayal of the men ensues, with the sensual double agent delivering the plans to England's Duke of Buckingham.
On the heels of that decidedly Raiders of the Lost Ark-meets-James Bond opening sequence, Anderson more or less settles into retelling the traditional story.
Young would-be Musketeer D'Artagnan is determined to join the king's troops, a profession his father had nobly discharged. But en route to Paris, the lad—who's long on foolhardy courage and short on anything resembling restraint—challenges a soldier to a duel after the man insults his horse. And it's not just any soldier: Rochefort ostensibly commands the king's guard but in reality answers to Cardinal Richelieu, the scheming power behind the French throne. D'Artagnan is lucky to escape with his life.
But our plucky late-teen protagonist is a slow learner. He's been in Paris all of five minutes before he insults all three men formerly known as the Three Musketeers. In light of their failure to procure da Vinci's plans, they've fallen on hard times and spend most of their time drinking and airing out their cynicism. And D'Artagnan invites each to a duel in quick succession.
It never comes to that. The hotheaded wannabe soon joins forces with the aging but still deadly Musketeers in an effort to defend the king and queen of France from the dastardly efforts of Richelieu, Milady de Winter and Rochefort to seize the throne and foment a war with England.
To outflank those crafty adversaries, D'Artagnan and his new friends will need their wits, their courage and, of course, each other.
Oh, and it turns out they'll also need that floating, cannon-laden airship da Vinci dreamed up.
The Three Musketeers are well on their way to settling into crusty curmudgeondom when D'Artagnan's feisty arrival reminds them that there are some causes still worth fighting for. Perhaps causes worth giving your life for—though none of them have to make that sacrifice.
D'Artagnan is impetuous to the point of foolishness at times, but he's also infectiously influential in his idealism. It's a character trait likely influenced by his father, who pats his son's chest and tells him, "The real weapon of a Musketeer is here."
The king and queen are depicted as frivolous, frittering teens. Still, the king is also a generous-hearted young man who, we discover, is still trying to win the heart of his queen, a young woman to whom he was joined in marriage for political reasons. The king and D'Artagnan strike up a friendship, with the king depending on him for relationship advice.
Much of the plot turns around Cardinal Richelieu's attempt to frame the queen (and thus destabilize the king's reign) by accusing her of having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham. (In the original version, she is having an affair. Here she's not.) Defending her honor requires D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers to storm the Tower of London to retrieve a stolen diamond necklace that's supposedly proof of an affair that never actually happened.
Along the way, D'Artagnan falls in love with one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, a single woman named Constance. (In the original, she's married.) Both characters risk their lives for each other.
When the Musketeers capture the villainous, duplicitous Milady de Winter, Athos is set to exact vengeance by executing her at gunpoint on the airship—but he cannot bring himself to do so. He says he could not have lived with himself had he pulled the trigger to kill the woman he once loved.
Aramis is, in his own way, depicted as a man of faith. He always wears a cross and regularly genuflects. We hear him praying part of the Lord's Prayer before he kills a number of men. And a conversation later in the film reveals that he feels compelled to pray for the souls of those he dispatches.
Aramis also says that there's a difference between a man of the cloth and a man of God. That truth is illustrated by Richelieu, a corrupt, venal spiritual "leader" whose only concerns are temporal and carnal. (Richelieu is frequently shown in front of an enormous crucifix in his cavernous receiving room.) Someone sarcastically jokes that the clergy should be closer to heaven than everyone else (but it's obvious they're not). Someone else chuckles over the idea that it's good to be a priest because of the free wine and proximity to nuns.
Affixed to the prow of a floating airship is a skeleton holding a cross.
There's quite a bit of suggestive banter and frequent sexual double entendres, many of them revolving around Milady de Winter. She's apparently willing to sleep with anyone if it means achieving her goals. At one point she and the Duke of Buckingham kiss quite passionately, and he says, "Shall I search you for concealed weapons?"
Elsewhere, wordplay between Aramis and a minor female character hints at a brief liaison. And one of the Musketeers quips, "Ladies of Paris have a thousand ways to say no. Only some of them mean yes."
More obvious—and visually omnipresent—are camera shots of virtually every female character's cleavage. Milady and Constance, especially, display lots of flesh in their corseted outfits. In one of those scenes, Milady strips off an outer dress and wears what amounts to revealing 17th-century lingerie as she breaks into the queen's chambers to steal her diamonds.
Several couples kiss, including Athos and Milady, D'Artagnan and Constance, and the king and queen. The king, who's quite naive, asks Cardinal Richelieu if the word consummation means what he thinks it does.
The film's frequent violence splits the difference between being intensely realistic and churlishly cartoonish. One battle, for instance, pits D'Artagnan and the Musketeers against 40 of Rochefort's men: It's clear that they kill or disable nearly all of these soldiers, with most on the receiving end of thrust swords and thrown knives.
Despite that realism, though, there's nary a hint of blood or gore in that (or any other) mass battle scene. And the camera almost never lingers on the apparently mortal damage the men's weapons inflict as countless nameless lackeys fall to the cobblestones in piles.
All of that lends the film a bit of an old-fashioned feel in terms of the unrealistic, sanitized way it deals with violence.
The biggest exception to that generalization is D'Artagnan's lengthy sword duel with Rochefort. D'Artagnan is repeatedly wounded, and the camera shows us his bloody cuts. One wince-inducing sequence involves D'Artagnan trying to slow his enemy from stabbing him. To do so, he grabs the blade as his enemy pushes it—staining the metal red.
Then there are those explosions I mentioned before. Cannon fire rips and shreds and rends and blasts and blows lots of stuff up. A massive flamethrower is used repeatedly against human targets (several of whom we see on fire).
Crude or Profane Language
Three full s-words and another partial. "D‑‑n" is spoken five times, "a‑‑" and "h‑‑‑" twice each. "B‑‑tard" pop up once, and we hear a crude slang reference to a woman's chest. There are two misuses of God's name and one utterance of "good lord."
Drug and Alcohol Content
The Three Musketeers repeatedly wax eloquent about their love for distilled libations. When D'Artagnan suggests a toast to the king, France or love, Athos cynically responds that none of those things are worthy of the alcohol needed for it. Several scenes picture people drinking wine. Athos tosses a passed-out drunk onto a hay wagon.
Other Negative Elements
Cardinal Richelieu and Milady de Winter are practiced, professional deceivers. He tells her, "You have a gift for corruption, a penchant for betrayal. I admire your skills."
And speaking of betrayals, Athos' heart has never really recovered from Milady's treachery. Scarred by her lies, he's a hardened, cynical man who tells D'Artagnan not to trust women—or put any faith in a country's government, for that matter. The only things we should trust, he says, are money, drink and your blade.
A man talks of trying to "fart in a bottle." D'Artagnan is cited in Paris for his horse taking a "dump" illegally.
Of all those Three Musketeers movies made since 1903, this is one.
That's my sentence-long summary of Paul W.S. Anderson's update, which is not atrocious, aesthetically speaking, but hardly memorable either. Content-wise, that same generalization also works. I've seen plenty of PG-13 action flicks that pushed all the content boundaries much further than this one does.
That said, the camera's affection for busty heroines, paired with the screenwriter's modern sensibilities for profanity, make this a very different film than that first one over a century ago. So never mind the legendary French troop's rallying cry. This one really isn't for all.