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updated 02/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

The Count of Monte Cristo

Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce

Alexandre Dumas stuffed so much plot into his classic 1844 novel, here filmed for at least the ninth time, he could have snipped out the entrails and tossed them out the window to feed the hungry cats of Paris.

The story starts with no less than Napoleon. A decent but naive seaman named Edmond Dantès (Caviezel) comes ashore on the island of Elba seeking medical help for his captain. The emperor, exiled there, entrusts Dantès to deliver a letter to an acquaintance back in Marseilles. Dantès's best friend, Fernand Mondego (Pearce), astutely realizes the letter is a bit of treasonous gossip bound for one of Napoleon's agents. Not that great a friend, he turns Dantès over to the authorities so that he can have Dantès's beloved, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), all to himself. Dantès then spends years unjustly imprisoned in a rocky fortress before escaping to freedom. With a treasure map provided by a fellow prisoner, he becomes rich and returns to mainland France as the Count of Monte Cristo, seeking revenge.

The story just keeps tumbling forward from that point, but director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) doesn't give things much momentum. Cristo moves along at a dull, regular pace, like a bus hewing dutifully to its route. Which means that the sword-glinting climax isn't much more exciting than that bus returning to its garage. The acting is livelier but still not good. Pearce, usually understated (Memento), is over the top. Tossing his head back as if defying the wind to toussle his moussed hair, he plays the increasingly dissolute Mondego as a rancid fop. Caviezel has some of the dash of Ralph Fiennes—whippet profile, piercing stare—without the alchemy that makes Fiennes seem fiery and icy at the same time. He's not helped by the count's costume, a long robe trimmed with jewels. He looks like a Las Vegas magic act. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: No account Count

The Mothman Prophecies

Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Debra Messing, Will Pattern

Something's not right in (irony alert!) Point Pleasant, W.Va. The locals are hearing voices, having accidents and occasionally spotting a menacing guy who looks like a moth—or, perhaps, a very large moth that looks like a guy. As a local cop (Linney) understates the case to a visiting Washington Post reporter (Gere), "Things have been a little strange around here lately."

No question. But audiences hoping for a coherent explanation won't find one in The Mothman Prophecies, a frustratingly wispy supernatural thriller loosely based on some still unexplained nastiness that really happened near Point Pleasant in 1966 and '67 (though the film is set in the present). Director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) quickly establishes a sense of dread but then seems more interested in exploring the reporter's possible nervous collapse than pinning down what's going bump in the night. Gere, still grieving over the potentially Mothman-related death two years earlier of his wife (Messing), furrows his brow mightily to no avail. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Get the bug spray

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel

Like a banana split with all the fixin's, Brotherhood of the Wolf is a guilty pleasure. A gothic thriller whipped up out of equal parts horror movie, chopsocky fest and sumptuous costume drama, the French-language Wolf scored a major box office success last year in its homeland.

The plot: In the French countryside during the reign of Louis XV, a mysterious, wolflike creature is feasting on peasants. (The movie is based on a familiar-to-the-French legend about the fabled Beast of Gévaudan.) Riding to the rescue come two handsome heroes, a scientifically minded aristocrat (Le Bihan) and his Iroquois Indian sidekick (Mark Dacascos), who soon find themselves up to their chiseled cheekbones in political intrigue, secret societies, steamy bedroom romps and plenty of splendidly choreographed martial-arts mayhem (the fight scenes were devised by Philip Kwok, a vet of Hong Kong action films and up the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies). Director Christophe Gans gets carried away with his own brilliance—at 140 minutes this Wolf should be curtailed—but the first two-thirds are a howl. (R)

Bottom Line: Wolf it down

Italian for Beginners

Peter Gantzler, Anette Stovelbaek

Featured attraction

Pray that Hollywood never gets its hands on the delightful Italian for Beginners. The movie, which despite its name is actually a Danish-language film, is an unpretentious, charming, ensemble romantic comedy that will be ruined by syrupy overkill—think Chocolat—if studio masterminds decide it's ripe for an American remake.

Made by director-writer Lone Scherfig, Italian follows six slightly lost souls who come together for a weekly Italian-language class in Copenhagen. They include Andreas, a widowed pastor new to town; Halvfinn, a surly bartender; Karen, a tear-prone hairdresser; and Olympia, a clumsy bakery sales clerk given to dropping pastry trays. Under the sway of the language of love, the classmates allow friendship and romance to enter their lives. (R)

Bottom Line: Molto bene

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