In the year that gave us Red Riding Hood and Immortals, Paul W.S. Anderson's travesty on themes by Alexandre Dumas doesn't come close to being the worst film. In any other year, who can say? Before we go further, let's make clear that I have no problem with the "steampunk" gimmickry that adds a climax of dueling airships over Paris to the story of the Queen's necklace. The imagery in the advertisements hinted at a certain lunatic grandeur, and the finished product, unlike its competition in the worst-film category, is often pictorially ravishing. In fact, I was ready to be won over when Anderson opened the film with toy soldiers on a map of Europe. That was so charmingly unexpected that I briefly believed that the director did have the insane spark that might have made this thing work. But Anderson is anything but a madman, alas, and his writers are worse still. Their script is a thing of jaw-dropping banality. Never mind the anachronistic superweapons; you simply can't believe the words the characters are saying. If the intro raised my hopes, those hopes were dashed the moment Milla Jovovich replies to a snarky compliment with, "I bet you say that to all the girls." The words she said and the way she said them were fatal. I haven't seen any Resident Evil movies, but I can't believe that they've caused her to regress so badly as an actress, or Anderson to regress so badly as a director of actors. He can't extract a decent performance out of anyone here, even the phoning-it-in Christoph Waltz, and it's as if Anderson has forgotten (if he ever knew) how to film dialogue for emphasis or even clarity. It's debatable whether Anderson has really ever been a good director, but for all their flaws films like Event Horizon and Soldier seemed to respect actors more than this film does.
The actors hold our interest only so we can keep track of whose career is closest to total ruin. For Orlando Bloom, The Hobbit can't come soon enough, and it probably won't be enough to restore him to where he was about eight years ago. His Buckingham gets arguably the most cliches, having to utter such gems as "The game's afoot," and "Sending a boy to do a man's work." Listening to him strut and simper, you begin to wonder whether the movie was intended all along as a party game where you have to drink every time you hear an old wheeze like that. But if Bloom is bad, Logan Lerman as D'Artagnan is hopeless, smug rather than earnest or arrogant and a pretty face more than anything else. His exchanges with Gabriella Wilde's Constance are treated as if the actors were glamorous wits, but the actors seem not to have a brain between them. They embody the film's unforgivable vapidity. The writers are the sort who think they're clever for quoting from A Fistful of Dollars at one end of the picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at the other, but what does it all prove apart from their film-geekery? Beyond such showboating, their worst sin is lying to the audience or, more specifically, having their characters lie to the audience --not to another character, but to the people watching the movie. I kid you not. They show us the musketeers plotting their strategy for attacking the Tower of London, with Athos explaining that the bad guys will expect a certain approach, so they'll try another, with the musketeers as decoys for D'Artagnan. Then, after Buckingham captures D'Artagnan, our hero tells his British enemy, "They're not the decoys; I am!" The earlier scene exists only to deceive us, not the bad guys, and that's kind of insulting -- not in the way the whole film's an insult to your intelligence, but almost a personal insult. Yet despite it all, the visuals nearly redeem the movie at times, even if they raise more questions than they answer about physics, logic, etc. If the production designers had been at the service of a more inspired or just more reckless director or writer, this same story might have attained the level of guilty pleasure at least -- something like a 17th century Hudson Hawk. As it is, Anderson's Musketeers might be compared to Hudson Hawk (there is a convergence on the point of Leonardo da Vinci) as an expensive and misconceived failure, but such comparisons are unfair to Hudson Hawk. If you want to make comparisons, think of 2011 and remember that there were worse films than The Three Musketeers. Chilling, isn't it?