Movie Review: Rifftrax The Role-Playing Game

It’s one for all and all for WTF when Paul W. S. Anderson goes medieval on French literature. Just go with it.


(NOTE: This review is based on the 2-D version of the film.)

The legendary Three Musketeers—leader Athos (Matthew Macfayden), strongman Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and dashing Aramis (Luke Evans)—have fallen on hard times. A year prior, they were betrayed by their colleague Milday de Winter (Milla Jovovich), who stole plans from Leonardo Da Vinci’s vault and turned them over to the nefarious Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). When young duelist D’Artagnan (Logan Leman) comes to Paris to join his idols as a Musketeer, he convinces them to reform when Buckingham returns with a fully-armed airship built from Milday’s stolen plans. With Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz) and Captain Rochefort (Mads Mikkelsen) working to usurp the king’s power, the Musketeers find themselves surrounded by enemies on all sides with intrigue, danger and enough anachronisms to power three full seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess.

Allegedly, The Three Musketeers is also the name of a classic piece of French literature with a story that has inspired countless adaptations and derivations over the past two centuries. This film is not that story. It may look like that story, and it may have key plot elements from that story, but it bears as much resemblance to that story as Edward Cullen does to a real vampire. This is a key piece of information, because it’s essential in determining whether you will enjoy the film or loathe its very existence.

Quick! Somebody disarm the Faithful Adaptation Trap!

Just to reiterate, this is NOT an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ work. You WILL fail your English exam if you watch this film instead of reading the assignment. This is a radical re-interpretation that uses Dumas’ novel as a jumping off point for a rollicking steampunk saga. Don’t think for a second that director Paul W. S. Anderson—the man behind Event Horizon and the Resident Evil films—would do anything less. If you’re looking for a faithful, reverent film, you should look elsewhere, unless you enjoy being seriously disappointed (and not entertained) for two hours. 

Anderson is often unfairly maligned for his body of work, because he works in slick escapism. It’s true that this film, like most of Anderson’s others, sacrifices depth for gorgeous visuals and redefines the phrase “what the hell was that?” However, in this instance, it creates a breathless, dazzling adventure that manages to overcome its flaws, even while those flaws are almost proudly on display throughout the movie’s running time. The sets and costumes are eye-searing candy in the best ways, and the battles are exciting and well-choreographed, thankfully edited with precision and not a hacksaw. The first act’s big fight scene between the Musketeers and 40 of Rochefort’s men is one of the best, most exhilarating sword battles in recent memory.

I love a man who knows how to use his sword.

The film has the appearance of a role-playing game (tabletop, not console) that borrowed the best elements of a number of other games, but can’t quite make them work in a balanced whole. The RPG vibe is established immediately by an opening sequence that explains the setting using miniatures on a felt-and-foam battlefield. Historical accuracy is an extremely minor concern if it gets in the way of the story. Steampunk and clockpunk both highly influence the film, even though those genres are an awkward fit for a Renaissance setting that never quite works as well as Anderson thinks it does.

Congratulations! You have found the LEVISTONE!

In a similar fashion, Andrew Davies’ and Alex Litvak’s screenplay is peppered with modern obscenities and action hero one-liners, instead of grand speeches delivered with Received Pronunciation. However, it’s exactly the right match for the film’s visual style and timbre. The script is efficient and quick, willfully jettisoning dramatic weight and often being very humorous entirely on purpose. It sweeps the film along with such ease that by the half-way point, you stop asking why the accents are not only inconsistent among the cast, but often fluctuate noticeably within a single monologue.

In the reception hall of Francenglamerica.

That’s often due to the cast, who are almost to a person wonderful and well-cast. The Musketeers each display highly individual personalities that each actor conveys with ease. Logan Leman has D’Artagnan’s unwarranted cockiness down perfectly, while Luke Evans’ suave, contemplative Aramis is effortlessly charismatic. Ray Stevenson—big, beefy, beautiful Ray Stevenson—obviously relishes playing the team’s designated Brute Squad and jumps into the role with abandon. He’s matched for his enthusiasm only by Orlando Bloom, who can’t hide his glee at playing 100% against type as a sneering, arrogant Sir Snidely of Whiplash. The same goes for Waltz as the perfidious Richelieu and Freddie Fox as the cuckolded King Louis XIII, a memorable and humorous role that definitely deserved more screen time. And, of course, Milla Jovovich is beautiful, deadly and a much better actress than she’s usually given credit for. Her Milady is magnetically confident whether slyly scheming or kicking ye old ass in a hoop dress.

I’m so naughty! Naughty I am!

The ridiculousness begins to overwhelm the cast by the third act, however. The climactic battle goes on too long, although it contains a number of highly memorable scenes. Dozens of genre tropes are thrown into a blender set for lunacy, and often pull the film in different directions like a tug of war. More than almost any other film in theaters this year, it’s screaming—nay, demanding with a placard 10-feet wide—for the Rifftrax treatment. It’s a feeling that the film seems to court openly without care for its reputation, with proper gaps in the narrative to allow for Mike Nelson to interject something. It’s crazy as hell on purpose, and while that’s often fun, it actually becomes overwhelming by the end of the film. Even Tom Servo would have cried “Mon oncle!” by the 90-minute mark.

This isn’t a classic high-brow adaptation of an enduring piece of Western literature. It certainly isn’t aiming to be a classic of Western cinema, either. These Musketeers are united for one reason: to provide two hours of giddy, escapist fun that just happens to feature swordplay, airship dogfights, explosions AND brocaded period costumes. It succeeds brilliantly, even while it makes a strong, dedicated bid for the silliest film of the decade…at least until the inevitable sequel comes out.

Rating: 7 out of 10 / B

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and has proficiency in rapier wit as a class feature.<a href="; title="imageimage