The 1650’s gave us the periwig, the man’s pearl earring, and the bulky starched ruff but perhaps its greatest contribution to modern romanticism was this term: swashbuckling. The onomatopoeic “swash” is of course the sound that a fencing foil makes when it whips past its opponent and a “buckler” is a shield. Herein lies the suggestion that a swashbuckler is somebody who blusters around banging on their enemy’s armour, brawling and waxing lyrical in a show of drunken bravado. That about describes Athos (Matthew MacFadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Luke Evans), better known as The Three Musketeers.
It might seem hard to have any fun when draped in heavy jewels or sporting a codpiece, strangling corset or suspicious goatee, but adventure seems to cling to this Parisian era, and most especially to this film. The Three Musketeers is riotously funny, enriched by a charming and wonderfully adept cast and engulfed in a world of top-quality stunts, special effects and costuming. More importantly for an adventure film, however, it has all the melodrama of a Shakespearean intrigue whilst remaining coherent, surprising and witty.
Tearaway country boy D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) has left his humble roots in a green-pastured village to pursue a far-less-humble career in Paris as a Musketeer, one of Louis the XIII’s musket-slinging infantry branches. Unfortunately he finds that the once legendary Musketeers have fallen upon hard times, lacking great causes to lend their skills to and spending their spare time drinking, eating and picking fights. After an epic skirmish with the cardinal’s guard in a market square amuses the poncy and effeminate King Louis, the four are given the job of chasing down a beautiful double agent (Milla Jovovich as a first-class femme fatale) who is absurdly named Milady. The task, of course, is to retrieve a stolen treasure and prevent all-encompassing European war.
This little synopsis hardly does justice to the clever, madcap plotline of the film, and needs must skip over some of its best characters. Like me, you may find yourself overzealously elbowing your neighbour in the cinema as Gavin and Stacey’s James Corden appears as the Musketeers’ downtrodden but grateful servant Planchet; stifling a squeal of delight at the cold, shark-like performance of Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Water For Elephants) as the calculating, uncharismatic Cardinal; or spilling your popcorn at the majestic appearance of Orlando Bloom’s self-lampooning Buckingham, a bedazzled and magnetic villain, the Russell Brand of 1650’s European foreign policy, a peacock in bulbous shorts and Jimmy Dean bouffant: the exact opposite of his character Will from the Pirates franchise. These characters are a pleasure to watch and director Paul Anderson has brilliantly maximised the impact of each cast by nodding toward the actor’s previous repertoire: Milla Jovovich scaling a wall in full Resident Evil swing, Matthew MacFadyen’s expressionless Mr. Darcy baritone and the casting of Mads Mikkelson, the Dane who has become indispensible to wherever an action film lacks a penetrating stare or flash of muscle (see Clash of the Titans, King Arthur, Casino Royale).
The Three Musketeers is a thrillingly inventive film when it comes to staging action. No two choreographed scenes are identical, each making use of the in situ opportunities for weaponry and acrobatics. No fight happens for its own sake but each contains a noble objective, a rivalry or revenge with which to enliven the struggle that much more. I must chastise myself for keeping from you for this long that Buckingham’s galleons are in fact airborne warships (think Up meets League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), making for some spectacular high-altitude action. All this is enhanced continuously but tastefully by the wonders of modern 3D, whilst never straying into vertigo territory or giving jaw-dropping depth to mundane scenes.
For families with children of a certain age films like The Three Musketeers may be crystallised into family culture, quotes, characters or scenes fondly recreated in jest in the living room for years to come. You know, that movie you watch together every year when it gets to hot to be outside on Christmas day, or that you know every line of off by heart, that first VHS that was your very own. It has the potential to be for youngsters what was embodied for me by The Labyrinth, The Princess Bride or The Dark Crystal: a film of humour and wit which gives life to a great story that encapsulates the hopefulness and ingenuity of childhood.
It could be a formative film, which is rare in a genre which tends to spend more time trying to impress than endear, and in which effects are often used as an indicator of expense rather than to create a magical world. Perhaps Anderson’s cleverest tactic is his dogged pursuit of telling a good story over pandering to a particular target market. As a result, this is not a family film, PG kids’ holiday flick or teensploitation adventure, but just a rollicking fable that should appeal to all-comers.