"The Man in the Iron Mask"

Stephanie Zacharek reviews 'The Man in the Iron Mask,' directed by Randall Wallace and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Gabriel Byrne, John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published March 13, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It's bad enough when Gerard Depardieu -- as the aging, bumbling, unkempt Musketeer and lover-of-life Porthos -- shows up early on in "The Man in the Iron Mask" with a gaggle of buxom cuties fluttering and giggling around him. When he farts loudly, sounding a reveille that tells the world he's a man who lives life with gusto, things get just a little worse. But when he asks rhetorically, "So, are there more important things in life than a good pair of tits?" his diction is so incomprehensible that he may as well have one in his mouth, and the jig is up. Not 10 minutes into the smeary mess that is "The Man in the Iron Mask," the only sensible question to ask yourself is, "What am I doing here?"

If you're a 14-year-old girl, the answer is probably Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the movie's lead. DiCaprio has done some wonderful work in the past five years -- most notably in 1993's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" -- but it's his merely marginally engaging star turn in "Titanic" that's suddenly raised his stock in teenville, and thus in Hollywood. The release of "The Man in the Iron Mask" is a miracle of timing: Could there be a better way to cash in on DiCaprio's locker-pinup cachet than to toss out another one of his vehicles just as most of his new young fans are deciding that maybe eight viewings of "Titanic" -- OK, make it nine! -- are enough for now?

But no matter which way you cut it, "The Man in the Iron Mask" is a stinker: I can't imagine any of the 14-year-olds I know being taken in by it, Leo or no. It's a shame that director and screenwriter Randall Wallace -- who wrote "Braveheart" -- couldn't have done more with Alexandre Dumas' story, rich as it is with action, intrigue and irony, not to mention the startling romantic flourish at the end. But as it is, "The Man in the Iron Mask" is merely scatterbrained and graceless. Wallace must have wanted it to move quickly, and the film's schizophrenic editing shows it: Senselessly melodramatic quick cuts make mincemeat of the story -- particularly at the beginning, it's hard to figure out exactly what's going on as the action jumps inexplicably from luxurious castle exteriors to dank, nasty prisons to austere Musketeer headquarters. The point, of course, is that the story is supposed to unfold gradually, but you're left with so many questions early on -- What's this I hear about treasonous Jesuits? And what do they have to do with the starving masses? And why doesn't somebody just slap this snotty king Leo? -- that it's easy to get thrown out of the narrative when it's scarcely begun.

The story goes something like this: It's 17th century France. There's a bad Leonardo (King Louis, snotty in his leonine tresses and fancy bathrobes) and a good Leonardo (Phillipe, Louis' twin brother, who was spirited away at birth and lived in hiding until Louis, fearful that Phillipe might steal the throne, had him thrown into the Bastille, locked in an iron mask). The three original Musketeers -- Aramis (Jeremy Irons), Athos (John Malkovich) and Porthos (Depardieu) are still kicking around the kingdom, pretty much retired -- except Aramis is the secret leader of a rebel Jesuit faction that opposes the greedy, selfish, preening king.

D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), now the leader of the new gang of Musketeers,
is devoted to the king, as much as he dislikes him, partly because of the
oath of loyalty he's taken and partly because he's long had the hots for
the queen mum, Anne Parillaud. Meanwhile, the bad Leo keeps himself in form
by assigning a young soldier (Athos' son) to a tour of duty that kills him
off just so he can steal the soldier's luscious girlfriend (Judith Godreche). The chain of
events that threatens his royal badness lurches into action when the good
Leo is rescued by the Musketeers, who hope they can place him on the

Somewhere in there is a bit of folderol in which bad Leo's courtiers (all
18 of them -- this must be the most underpopulated costume epic ever; when
Louis throws a ball, it looks like he's having a few folks in for cheese
and crackers) are invited to chase a pig wearing a unicorn horn on its
head. Oh, those zany French monarchs! But after that early moment of
levity, "The Man in the Iron Mask" rolls downhill, fast. Not even the fancy
sword play scattered throughout the picture is much fun. It's so badly
blocked, you can barely tell who's slicing up whom.

Irons and Malkovich deliver wax-figure performances that invite nothing but
pity: Malkovich's line readings are particularly zombielike ("If Phillipe
is in the Bastille, then to the Bastille we will go," he says in his
numbed-out singsong), but the clunky dialogue he's saddled with doesn't
help. Depardieu plays your stock lusty buffoon, but it's interesting to
note that he pronounces D'Artagnan's name differently from the way every
other character in the film says it. (Why didn't the cast pick a
pronunciation and stick with it, preferably following the lead of the
French guy, who, after all, should know?) And Byrne does his
damnedest to lend depth and gravity to the troubled, lovesick D'Artagnan --
he's also the most handsome, with his dashing 17th century soul patch and
sexy pageboy -- but mostly, he just looks stricken.

And then there are the two Leos: Bad Leo has two expressions, a look of
disdain and a grumpy frown, which he adopts interchangeably depending on
his whim. (You know he's really pissed off when, after finishing off a
potential assassin by stabbing him with a dagger, he flips his long tresses
and snarls, "Jesuits!") Good Leo, on the other hand, wears a perpetual glow
of bewilderment and wonder that seems to say, "You want me to be king?

You can't even call what DiCaprio delivers in "The Man in the Iron Mask" a
performance -- it's more like a caricature, a cartoon-book reading of the
duality of good and evil. DiCaprio is coasting here; he's playing nothing
so much as a smooth-skinned dream boy, a virtually asexual matinee idol for
the teen set. But I'm willing to bet that it won't be long before even
teenage girls stop buying it. In "The Man in the Iron Mask," DiCaprio is
simply the flavor of the month, and that's a drag. He seems to stiffen up
in period roles, and he's especially ill-suited to play a king, since he
doesn't have any heroic presence. But in the past, DiCaprio has shown
plenty of wit and charm and subtlety, and he has a way of playing off --
and, maybe more important, to -- his screen partners that helps them
shine as well. In that respect, he's shown a generosity and sensitivity
that few of his contemporaries have matched. With any luck, he'll wake up
from his spell and start being an actor again. Until then, he may as well
keep the mask on.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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