ust last week in this space, I opined that a critic should admit it when he hadn’t seen all of the movie under review. Well, it’s happened again. The circumstances this time, though, were entirely different. Last week I was confessing to bailing out of a movie I found unendurable (I Am Sam). This week, I’m going to withhold the reason I missed the film’s ending till the end of this review. For now, let’s just say it was no fault of the movie.On the contrary, Kevin Reynolds’ The Count of Monte Cristo is the most fun I’ve had in a Hollywood movie in countless months, and I have a feeling that judgment will be shared by people who span the moviegoing spectrum, from senior citizens who remember the Robert Donat version to pointyheaded film critics to magenta-haired kids who are still buzzing from The Lord of the Rings.

My own enrapturement with the movie began even before I sat down in the theater. Buying a ticket at the box office, I heard myself say “Count of Monte Cristo,” and I realized that I had said the same words with deep fascination as a kid. The title triggered the tug of memory, yet I couldn’t remember exactly how I had first encountered Alexandre Dumas’ sweeping adventure tale. I don’t recall seeing the 1934 Donat version or reading the book. If I had to guess, I’d hazard that my introduction was provided by Classics Illustrated Comics, which served ’60s kids as a kind of cartoon CliffsNotes, with the added advantage that one usually read them for pleasure rather than to cram for tests.

Pleasure, in any case, was the main association the film’s title evoked in me, a vague but definite recollection of being held in thrall by this swashbuckling story of a wronged man given the chance for revenge. The sort of tale that belongs beside the bonfire at every kid’s summer camp, it is also a superlative example of the kind. How many narratives are its equal in the spellbinding department? Very few, surely. Hollywood in its golden age manufactured countless pirates, knights, cowboys, Bengal lancers, foreign legionnaires and other paragons of derring-do, but very seldom did they inhabit a story as mesmerizingly, masterfully imagined as Dumas’.

Its particular genius we associate not only with this wizardly writer, who also penned The Man in the Iron Mask, but also, more generally, with the 19th century novel at its most exuberantly populist. Like Dickens, Dumas had a great pulp sense, a gleeful, unabashed willingness to resort to the most extravagant storytelling tricks, from miraculous rescues to the most outlandish coincidences. Yet his tales also have an appreciation for the extremities of the human spirit–its dreams and depravities, its nobility and its tragedies–that at times is well-nigh Shakespearean.

No airy fabulist, Dumas was also solidly grounded in the spirit and history of his times. The Count of Monte Cristo opens on Elba at a time when that island houses the world’s most famous prisoner: Napoleon Bonaparte. The tale’s protagonist, Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel), is not the type to get involved in political intrigue, but around the deposed dictator, who stalks Elba’s ramparts like Hamlet’s ghostly father, such intrigue is as inescapable as sea spray. When Dantes agrees to take an “innocent” message for Napoleon (Alex Norton), he ends up accused of treason. And if that’s not enough, it soon emerges that Dantes’ best friend, the sly, foppish Fernand (Guy Pearce), betrayed him, partly to steal away the affections of Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), Dantes’ intended.

Kevin Reynolds’ best-known movie heretofore was the turgid, anachronistic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring his friend Kevin Costner. The rest of his repertoire has been similarly undistinguished: Fandango, The Beast of War, Rapa Nui, Waterworld, 187. Happily, The Count of Monte Cristo suggests a capable director suddenly elevated to distinction by the strength of his material. The film is crisp, handsome and exuberant from the first scene–it has Dumas’ own combination of verve and conviction–and its entertaining expertise never flags thereafter.

The tale reaches a delicious high point at the depths of Dantes’ misfortune. Confined to the infamous Chateau d’If, an inescapable prison perched atop a desert island, he is subjected to merciless whippings and then locked up and forgotten for years. His hair and fingernails grow until he looks like the most forlorn, emaciated Christ in anyone’s passion play. He writes on his wall, “God Will Give Me Justice,” then slowly ceases to believe in God.

If you remember the book, you’ll know that Dantes’ salvation comes at the hands of one of Dumas’ greatest characters, Abbe Faria (a wonderful turn by Richard Harris). The reprobate priest comes burrowing up, mole-like, through Dantes’ floor one day. The two men continue the older inmate’s long, arduous project of tunneling out of the prison, and in the meantime the Abbe–Dantes’ Virgil–gives Edmond lessons in everything from sword fighting to economics to political machinations a la Machiavelli. But his most important gift comes as a posthumous bequest–a map to a fabulous cache of gold and jewels hidden on the Italian island of Monte Cristo.

The action in the Chateau D’If is this tale’s most affecting and resonant section because it contains its metaphysical essentials: death and resurrection, the apostasy and the ecstasy. But what comes after is pretty good too. Escaping the prison island by being sown into the dead Abbe’s shroud, Dantes discovers the Croesus-like riches indicated by his mentor’s map. Remaking himself as an Italian noble, the Count of Monte Cristo, he buys an aristocratic pile in Paris and sets about avenging himself on Fernand, Mercedes and others who sent him to prison.

The smartest decision Reynolds and screenwriter Jay Wolpert made was, in essense, to tell this grand old tale in a grand old style. Visually, there’s no distancing reliance on special-effects trickery; verbally, the filmmakers handily avoid all retrospective irony and anachronistic gimmickry. Aided by Andrew Dunn’s plush photography and Edward Shearmur’s bounding, romantic score, the movie swashes where it should swash and buckles where it should buckle. There’s considerable dash to the fight scenes, yet this is a film that depends far more on character, atmospherics and emotion than on rapiers.

Reynolds’ leads likewise rise to the occasion. While Caviezel starts out seeming vague and mopey–the poor man’s Daniel Day-Lewis–by the time Dantes is transformed by his prison ordeal, so, it seems, is the actor; in the film’s latter sections he is positively commanding. For his part, Pearce, who recently played the memory-challenged protagonist of Memento, uses his delicately gaunt visage to make Fernand a fey if lethal villain, as lascivious and bitterly decadent as he is treacherous.S

o if the film is so captivating at every level, why didn’t I see the end? I meant to, believe me. But about halfway through, at the Manhattan multiplex where I attended its first, opening-day matinee, the trouble started. First the film jammed in the gate and burned up a frame. Since we live in a time where most movies play automatically, with one projectionist overseeing a half-dozen or more screens, it took a while for an audience member to alert the management and for the damage to be repaired. The film rolled again.But during the final confrontation between Dantes and Fernand–the climactic scene, fer Monte Cristo’s sake!–the sound went off, some bland pop song began playing on the P.A., and the image slowed to an occasional flicker. The projector bulb, I gathered, had burned out. In the days before projection was automated, such a problem could be rapidly fixed. But now, they said, remedying this ailment was impossible, because the plate-loaded celluloid couldn’t be rewound. The problem couldn’t be corrected till the next show.

The audience was pissed, and it provided one of those occasions when I had to admire the take-no-guff feistiness of New Yorkers. Faced with two sweaty assistant managers, they shouted and argued until they got more satisfaction than was initially offered: not just a refund but a refund plus a free ticket to any movie in the theater. Still, many of them left laughing, but not, it seemed, happy. Everyone there, I felt sure, would have traded their gains for an immediate chance to see The Count of Monte Cristo‘s ending.

No doubt this kind of screwup happens all too frequently at theaters. But in this film it had a particularly acrid irony. The Count of Monte Cristo is one of those rare Hollywood successes that brings to mind the studio system’s golden age, and that makes you wonder why more movies can’t exhibit its collection of old-fashioned virtues. You dream while you’re watching it of a renewal of Hollywood moviemaking that would use it as a model. But then a bulb blows and your fantasy explodes with it.

You realize it would do no good to bring back Dumas and Irving Thalberg and Errol Flynn, because we don’t live in an age where people go to Moorish palaces to see movies and there’s a projectionist watching every projector in movie heaven. We live in a time when cell phones go off in theaters and moviegoers know the movie can’t be rewound, come what may. It’s not just the movies that have gotten worse. The entire moviegoing context has reached a state of advanced degradation. EndBlock