Friday March 13, 1998
"The Man in the Iron Mask" swashes until it buckles. Heavy on swordplay and spectacle, it's so intent on reviving the costume epics of the past it doesn't realize it's trying to be too many things to too many people until it collapses under its own weight.
Written and directed by Randall Wallace, Oscar-nominated for his "Braveheart" script, "Mask" has more energy than sense, but its tale of derring-do in 17th century France is watchable in a mock heroic sort of way for those who are forgiving and in the mood for a film that uses the classic "all for one and one for all" line no less than seven times.
Yes, this film features the Three Musketeers and is based on a celebrated novel by the prolific Alexandre Dumas. With Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu as the trio of swordsmen, Gabriel Byrne as their pal D'Artagnan, and Leonardo DiCaprio as both King Louis XIV and the title character, no one can be accused of holding back in the casting department.
Production values are not lacking either. "Mask" is crammed with neighing horses, rowdy peasants, elegant French chateaus and servile courtiers bowing and scraping in more than a thousand authentic costumes. For those who want more, they've even worked in a pig chase.
But Wallace, in his first try at directing, has been unable to unify the film's disparate elements. There's swordplay and tragedy, slapstick and romance, lots of DiCaprio for all those teenage girls--there's everything but a consistent style. And events are handled so broadly it's not surprising to learn that the director's inspiration was the Classics Illustrated version of the Dumas novel he read as a youth.
The closest "Mask" comes to a unifying tone is, unfortunately, one of raunchy comedy, with numerous crude jokes about sex and bodily functions intended to appeal to who knows who. Creating the kind of sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek humor that Richard Lester brought to his beguiling 1974 version of "The Three Musketeers" was not on anyone's mind here.
"Some of this is legend, but at least this much is fact," the film's prologue proclaims, before noting that the dreaded Bastille really did have an inmate identified only as "Prisoner number 64389000--the Man in the Iron Mask." (Who knew the place had that kind of capacity?)
Initially we get only a peek at this gentleman, who is seen banging his metal headdress against prison bars in understandable frustration. He's been in a cell coping with a cast-iron covering for years, and no one has ever told him why.
Much more in control of his destiny is the young King Louis. A ruthless, long-haired dandy who cares more about the cut of his sash than his starving subjects, the king divides his time between military matters ("No, no, do not underestimate the Dutch" is his unfortunate first line) and his avocation as vile seducer and all-around bounder.
Having less fun are the grumpy old musketeers, retired from active service with lots of time to mull over their regrets and yearn for the good old days. Athos (Malkovich) lives only for his grown son, Porthos (Depardieu) is still eager to party though his bulky frame barely fits through brothel doors, and Aramis (Irons) has become a worshipful priest.
As for the steely D'Artagnan, he's still in the royal service, acting as the king's worrywart captain of the guards who believes "a fool's sword can be sharper than his brain." When he's not working, D'Artagnan's spare time is taken up exchanging passionate but discreet looks with Louis' mother, Queen Anne ("La Femme Nikita's" Anne Parillaud).
It's the king who unwittingly reunites this morose group. For one thing, he deputizes Aramis to stop those rascally Jesuits from criticizing the wars that are leading to general starvation. And his ruthless eye falls on a comely young woman ("Ridicule's" Judith Godreche) who just happens to be the beloved of Athos' prized son. The ramifications of both events lead directly to that unhappy masked man and all manner of swordplay.
While pains have been taken to assemble a stellar cast, no similar labors went into giving them anything memorable to do, and no one seeing "The Man in the Iron Mask" should expect lines more profound than the king's "I hope you know there is more of me to love than a crown." And "all for one and one for all" may be a heck of a motto, but repeating it seven times is not the way to any sane person's heart.
The Man in the Iron Mask, 1998. PG-13, for sequences of violence and some sensuality/nudity. Released by United Artists Pictures. Director Randall Wallace. Producers Randall Wallace, Russell Smith. Executive producer Alan Ladd Jr. Screenplay Randall Wallace, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Editor William Hoy. Costumes James Acheson. Music Nick Glennie-Smith. Production design Anthony Pratt. Supervising art directors Francois de Lamothe, Albert Rajau. Set decorator Philippe Turlure. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Leonardo DiCaprio as King Louis/Philippe. Jeremy Irons as Aramis. John Malkovich as Athos. Gerard Depardieu as Porthos. Gabriel Byrne as D'Artagnan. Annie Parillaud as Queen Anne. Judith Godreche as Christine.