Old school movie reviews: The Three Musketeers (1993)

Way back in the tail end of the nineties and beginning of the aughts there was a bunch of movies that would be played (it seemed) every few months during the ‘family’ slots on the commercial free-to-air stations, basically 7:30 on a saturday evening. For a good few years one of these films was the 1993 version of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling epic, The Three Musketeers.

I can’t in good conscious call this film epic. It’s not big enough, not grand enough. Too localised, too personal. But it is swashbuckling good fun, and that is all it needs to be.

The acting, while nothing I would call Oscar worthy, is cheerful and entertaining. Kiefer Sutherland broods appropriately as Athos and Charlie Sheen plays the relaxed, smooth-talking Aramis fantastically straight. A much younger Chris O’Donnell plays a rosy cheeked and curly-haired D’Artagnan that is endearing instead of annoying (which often seems a challenge for the generally much younger, less experienced actors required to play a brash, naive and often foolish character). Rebecca De Mornay hits the correct notes as Milady De Winter and Gabrielle Anwar does a decent job with Queen Anne, both of whom are badly underused characters. The three that I really enjoyed, however, were Tim Curry, Michael Wincott and Oliver Platt as, respectively, Cardinal Richelieu, Captain Rochefort and Porthos. Lotta commas in that last sentence. I am not rewriting it though. Anyway, Tim Curry as always brings his wonderful voice, sense of timing, flair for the dramatic and smug smile to the maniacal villain. He’s always a joy to watch and he looks fantastic in red. Michael Wincott is fantastically menacing, an appropriate foil for the fast-talking musketeers and has such an excellent voice for villainous roles as well. And Oliver Platt gets Porthos so right. I don’t know if I should be surprised that the talented character actor is able to bring such a larger-than-life persona to, well, life, but he does. Someone who revels in battle and destruction, the one who laughs in the face of danger and jokes around death, so that you never actually believe them to be in danger in the first place.

The plot is a little nonsensical but it hits the right notes (D’Artagnan pissing off and planning to duel the musketeers, Cardinal bad, possible war with England and the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Anne may or may not want to fuck someone other than the king, D’Artagnan finally becomes musketeer), but a film like this doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate to either history or its source material. You don’t expect it to, and at least it doesn’t have any fucking moronic flying warships. The fights are entertaining. Generally on a smaller scale than what we tend to expect in out swashbucklers these days, but that makes them more intimate, allowing us to see more of the characters in each fight.

It’s definitely not perfect, of course. My biggest gripe is that Milady De Winter, Queen Anne and Constance, three excellent female characters, are largely delegated to the sidelines. We’re told that Milady is dangerous, but we don’t actually see her being particularly dangerous. Queen Anne spends most of her time being threatened and terrified by Cardinal Richelieu or complaining about how long it’s been since she last got some. Constance appears, I dunno four times? Once to tell D’Artagnan her name, once to tell the queen how bad she wants in her bloomers, once to pass D’Artagnan a sword and then at the very end for him to kiss her. Not exactly a compelling character, aye?

But yeah, I enjoyed watching this movie. It’s a little dated but not horribly so, and the characters are, for the most part, wonderful fun to watch hamming about on screen.

Reviewing the Old School: Down Periscope (1996)

There was this period in the eighties and nineties where films about groups of ragtag misfits in the US military are able to achieve seemingly impossible success thanks to the unorthodox efforts of the misfit-in-chief. This era of screwball military comedies probably started with Private Benjamin (1980) and Stripes (1981) but saw a real renaissance through the nineties with Renaissance Man (1994), In the Army Now (1994), Major Payne (1995) and – that great Steve Martin vehicle – Sgt. Bilko (1996) just off the top of my head. Not always great films, but usually enjoyable enough.

Down Periscope – released in 1996, directed by David S. Ward – stars Kelsey Grammer as Tom Dodge, a navy veteran with two decades of experience and a tattoo on his penis. Yep. As you might expect from such a person, he’s known for his lack of discipline and relaxed leadership style. Having been prevented from taking command of his own submarine for years by a vindictive commanding officer, Admiral Graham (played by Bruce Dern), he’s finally given an opportunity by Admiral Winslow (Rip Torn) with an impossible task: sneak a diesel sub (a recommissioned museum piece) into two heavily guarded US Navy bases, launch flares and blow up some dummy warships. He’s given a handpicked crew of the submarine fleet’s losers, washouts, dropouts and special cases and the wargames begin. Hijinks ensue.

I don’t know. It’s sort of like if Tom Clancy wrote comedies. I mean, it probably doesn’t have the same sort of accuracy that Mr Clancy put into every detail of his books, but the jargon, the tension, the obstacles at times remind me of The Hunt for Red October except, y’know, funner. The ruses are clever and not completely unbelievable. You believe that, as outrageous as it seems at the time, Dodge has always got a plan, one that relies on both research (keeping an eye on the schedules for civilian traffic for example), experience (he knows how his fellow commanders think) and instinct (adapting on the fly). Looking at it, Dodge is a remarkably sympathetic character. He’s someone who cares about the wellbeing of his crew, and tries to get the best out of them by listening and encouraging them as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses. He acts the father figure and it works well. You want him and his misfits to win.

The acting is good. Kelsey Grammer is the standout, but everyone brings a level of enthusiasm to their roles that makes them a delight to cheer for. Or cheer against. It’s not perfect. Far from it. Too many stereotypes and typecasts. Rob Schneider is playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect Rob Schneider to play in this film. He doesn’t do it badly per se, it’s why they kept on giving him these roles. But it breaks the suspension a little bit, if you take my meaning. Same with a few other characters but he’s the obvious example. Nothing movie breaking, but perhaps some a little better casting would have been in order.

And then there’s the ultimate question we have to ask about any comedy: Is it funny? Yeah. Yeah, it’s alright. Nothing gut-busting, I didn’t even really laugh out loud. But most of the jokes land right and I enjoyed it all the way through. A few lines fall flat, but nothing I’d write home about. Plenty of screwball and a bit of dry wit. Good stuff.

So yeah, go watch it. Remind yourself of a time when we made military comedies. We don’t really seem to make them any more, do we? Well, Hollywood doesn’t at least. I mean, it’s pretty understandable. America’s basically been in a state of war for the past fifteen years (and it ain’t ending anytime soon). The number of dead and wounded, veterans languishing in bureaucratic nightmares and unable to make the transition to civilian life has skyrocketed. The films being made, movies and series like Hurt LockerJarhead and Generation Kill kinda reflect that. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Maybe we need to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all sometimes. Maybe we need to have a look at the military films of the nineties. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Ah well, have some fun with Down Periscope at least. The Village People sing at the end.

Reviewing the Old School: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

So the story I heard was that way back when, by which I mean the late nineties-early naughts after their second renaissance (which began with The Little Mermaid), Disney was in the process of shifting all their animation towards CG-3D. They’d bought Pixar but weren’t completely done with the odd bit of 2D fair. So they told their Florida animation studio, whose job had been support up until that point, to go for their life. What we got out of that are some of the most unique animated films to have come out of the House of Mouse, and a real shame that it took them years to get back on the saddle (with Wreck-it Ralph) after they shut that studio in favour of strict 3D animation. One of those films was, as you might have guessed, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

What made this film so unique? A combination of things. Something you’ve got to remember about Disney’s renaissance in the nineties was that even their weirdest stuff was still pretty cliche (I’m using the word loosely here, bear with me). The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty were based on classic and well known fairy-tales (admittedly with much happier endings) and even The Lion King just takes the skeleton of Hamlet and goes, “but what if… LIONS!” and adds a soundtrack by Elton John. I mean, it’s all good shit, but they’re very basic, very old, very proven stories.

What Atlantis does is take the well-known legend of Plato’s fictionalised city (highly advanced city, destroyed in a day, sunk below the waves, possibly around the Straits of Gibraltar) but ignores the fictional tropes that the rest of us lowly mortals use when making up stories about the place. No, seriously, think about other stories regarding Atlantis. We think of mermaids floating around a still thriving kingdom or a crumbling city beneath the waves of the Atlantic. We don’t normally come up with a living community that is both sophisticated and primitive, intelligent but illiterate, with a culture that is both familiar and strange at the same time. We certainly don’t think about flying tuna fish.

Then there’s the rest of the aesthetic of the film. It’s set in 1914 and everything that the outsiders brings to the city reflects that. The trucks are recognisable for the era, the dress and digger are appropriately steampunk, as is the submarine. Bolt action rifles, belt-fed machines guns, British-style helmets and paper flying machines add a level of class to the action that actually keeps things grounded. And as I said the design of the city and clothes of the Atlanteans is excellent. A good mix of primitive but alien. You don’t have trouble believing this is where our culture came from.

The characters are excellent, both their designs and voices. I love Helga, Kida and Audrey (played by Claudia Christian, Cree Summer and Jacqueline Obradors respectively). Their designs are different to each other (shit, all the speaking characters have got a unique silhouette) and you never have trouble imagining that they were capable of fighting or working an engine. Helga is traditionally attractive but broad shouldered and speaks with an authoritative and deep voice. Audrey dresses practically and looks her age. Even Kida, the most traditionally designed since she’s the heroine and princess of the tale, has a long, triangular face that is both individual and expressive. Amongst the guys Sweet and Mole (Phil Morris and Corey Burton) are fun in different ways. Dr Sweet is both oblivious and empathetic, the Mole is just, well, the Mole. Milo Thatch, our hero excellently played by Michael J Fox, is excellent. He’s skinny and bookish, but not unfit. He’s brave when he has to be, stands up for his principles and his relationship with Kida is fantastic. They fall into friendship instead of falling in love right away (we never see them kiss, which is excellent), making it one of the healthiest romances in Disney as far as I can tell. As for Commander Rourke (James Garner)? Well, that would be spoiling it. My favourite by far would be Vinny, voiced by Don Novello. The flower shop owner turned demolitions expert. He has such a fantastic delivery of his lines and some of the most relaxed and conversational dialogue in the film. Love the guy.

The music is strong and memorable. The lines are great.

So yeah, great movie. Unique and interesting. Different to other fairy-tale fair. If you haven’t, grab someone younger and watch it. It’s good fun.