I've adverted in the past to the way in which my exile to the Hidden City has cut into my opportunities to fritter away my precious time on worthless but entertaining schlock. Thus it was that I missed Paul WS Anderson's version of The Three Musketeers until just now, when I loaded up a cheapish DVD and prepared myself to marvel.
I'd seen the trailers and thought to myself; bulletproof underlying book, airships and - is that Ray Stevenson? Is that Christoph Waltz as Cardinal Richelieu? How can this fail? Somehow the glamour distracted me from the glaring hints that failure was not just an option but almost a requirement. Firstly, there was Milla Jovovich, who, no matter her many virtues, has been a virtual guarantee of disaster ever since she ran away from Luc Besson. Secondly - and he's never far behind, since Paul WS Anderson and Milla are to bad action movies what Paul and Linda McCartney were to unnecessary sequels to the Beatles - there was, well, Paul WS Anderson, the poor man's Michael Bay. WS can mount set pieces, but he doesn't ever seem to have figured out anything else; in a properly run world, he'd be the unsung second unit man who made sure real movies had a couple of really good explosions. Sadly, through some quirk for which I blame you, the moron general public, his movies keep making more money than they cost to make, and thus there seems to be no stopping him. There's only so much I can accomplish by paying less than cost price for his movies on DVD; the rest of you are going to have to start spending your money on better movies.
Frustratingly, there's a better movie struggling fitfully to get out of the Three Musketeers, and as is usually the case, it's the movie the actors are trying to make in conspiracy with the writers and against the director and the special effects team. Caddishly, they haven't let Milla in on this plot, and she spend most of her time hurling herself around athletically and laughing as though she'd been told she could get a real job if she somehow constructed the world's most annoying mannered laugh. Matthew McFadyen's wonderfully world-weary Athos plainly wants to murder the heck out of Milla's Milady deWinter and after you've seen and heard enough of the period laugh, you're rooting for him to get the job done before you see her entire set of teeth once again. I like Milla, but she needs to start her own band instead of Linda McCartney-ing it with WS all the time. It probably doesn't help that the whole point of Milady deWinter is poise, grace and subtlety, and the whole point of Milla is running up vertical surfaces while clobbering the ungodly.
I'd never heard of the actor who was playing Aramis, who managed to look vaguely like Orlando Bloom, but somehow with less in the line of cheekbones, and he doesn't do much to keep the Three Musketeer show on the road; all the musketeering belongs to Athos and the unstoppable Ray Stevenson, essentially doing Titus Pullo in a different outfit, and there is nothing, and can be nothing wrong with that. I'd be perfectly happy to watch Ray do Titus Pullo as Atticus Finch, let alone Porthos. So long as the camera is on Athos, Porthos, Christoph Waltz's perfectly pitched Richelieu, or even, in a pinch, Orlando Bloom's entertainingly nasty Buckingham, the movie is quite fun. Move the focus away from them and there's nothing much to be had but explosions and the kind of romantic flummery I'd expect in a Disney special about the problems of contemporary teenagers. Or to put it another way, whenever the camera rests on d'Artagnan, everything takes a nosedive.
I had thought I'd never heard of Logan Lerman, who plays d'Artagnan in much the same way that I play chess , but it turns out that he played the hapless kid in 3.10 to Yuma. He doesn't seem to have aged a day, and he brings to the role everything it truly doesn't need. d'Artagnan is written as an annoying callow teenager, but in a big sprawling book, there's plenty to distract you from that and anyway he gets smarter and less annoying; it's part of what the book and its sequels are about. A movie as dumb as this one has to keep all its characters pretty one-note, and man does that one note from from d'Artagnan get tired fast.
So, how about those airships? Well, they were invented by Leonardo da Vinci. I don't think that Hollywood is entirely clear on when da Vinci lived and worked; I think he's turned into a convenient shorthand for well-cool crap to throw at the screen in any movie not set in the present day. So we can pass cheerily over the fact that this is 1625 and that using da Vinci for engineering ideas makes about as much sense as having the characters in the Matrix discover a cache of Edison's prototypes and using them to out compute the Matrix. And I don't know when or how the hell they think he would have got the time and money to turn all his doodles into working prototypes; the movie with starts with a break in at da Vinci's vault in Venice. It's genuinely hard to think of a worse place to build a basement than Venice, let alone a basement filled with exquisitely engineered booby traps and protected by four locks so precisely machined that unless all four are released at once, none will work, and all miraculously still working a century after da Vinci died and 125 years after he left Venice for good.
It turns out that we've terribly underestimated the sheer technical brilliance of the 1600s, because within a year of the musketeers stealing and then losing the plans for da Vinci's airships, England's built a working prototype with essentially ALL THE GUNS IN THE WORLD on it, and not to be outdone, Richelieu's managed to nick the plans back and built his own French knock-off that makes the English prototype look like a rowboat with aspirations. Little does he know that England's sneakily built a whole fleet of the damn things, which make their appearance at the end of the movie in a homage to Resident Evil: Afterlife. Yeah. Resident Evil: Afterlife. If there was some kind of merit based system for queuing movies in the order which they deserved a homage, we'd need to invent a new kind of maths just to handle the number we'd be up to when it was Resident Evil: Afterlife's turn.
Which is not to say that the airships aren't sort of fun. They're just nothing like enough fun to have been worth the trouble and expense they must have involved for the production. There's one rather cool moment, when the Cardinal's airship looms up out of the fog at the musketeers and the figurehead has poor Constance lashed to it as a combo bonus figurehead and hostage; if only that hadn't blown the imagination budget for the production, the airships could have been as much fun as I'd hoped they'd be.
The weird thing is, why bother? It's The Three Musketeers, a book which has been made into a movie so many times that a stack of all the DVDs would stop a bazooka. All you need to do is bring along a bunch of actors and let that reliable old V12 engine rev up and do what it knows how to do. You've got a femme fatale, a scheming villain mastermind, ANOTHER scheming villain mastermind, a band of somewhat over the hill but still potent desperadoes and a dumb punk kid with a lot to learn and only the best to learn it from. Throwing in airships and da Vinci and steam punk in general is like thinking that Apollo 11 would have got to the moon a whole lot better if you'd just painted it yellow and stencilled "Pussy Wagon" on the back. And there are moments when Athos and Porthos are reflecting on the essential cussedness of life in public service and how there's nothing else for it but another drink; the whole movie could have been like that, with a couple of good sword fights and a real sense of danger and they'd have really had something.
Instead it's a confused mess with a few big explodey set pieces in the middle (there was a moment when Aramis was firing off some kind of primeval gatling gun, AGAIN, and I thought to myself "Did WS just recycle that shot from the first time he used it?"). The best bit is that in the middle of it all is the good old plot from the original; get back the Queens' jewels so that the King won't be provoked to a war with England through a carefully orchestrated misunderstanding. Gawdelpus, they can't even get that bit right; the musketeers manage to rain down so much destruction on England trying to sneak out the jewels that the King of France doesn't need to think about war; as the movie closes, Buckingham has brought the whole Royal Navy and Air Force to start the war on his own bat. In the meantime, Alexandre Dumas has dug himself out of his long slumber and is working his way towards WS's home to show him just what he remembers about sword fighting from back in the day when you wrote about things you knew how to DO instead of just throwing crap at the screen and hoping no-one would stop to ask questions.
 When it comes to chess, I embody the difference between knowing what to do and knowing how to do it.