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The Man in the Iron Mask

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Official Web site for THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK

Based on the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas, The Man in the Iron Mask is an old-fashioned and corny adventure yarn (that's corny in the best sense), the kind of story that Hollywood used to tell with great frequency, back in the days of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Hollywood occasionally still produces a swashbuckling tale, as in Cutthroat Island (a so-so but unambitious pirate movie) or The Three Musketeers (1993's wholly redundant updating of the classic tale), but for the most part Hollywood has forgotten how to tell swashbucklers. Movies such as 1987's wonderful The Princess Bride are the exception and not the rule. Instead, we get Kevin Costner sleepwalking through Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or a very contemporary, but earnest Dennis Quaid in Dragonheart. And the successful swashbucklers, such as Braveheart, don't even swashbuckle--they're devoted to mud-and-muck realism. So The Man in the Iron Mask is something of an endearing anachronism, a movie not afraid to deliver comic-book-ish fun while grown men wear frilly shirts, swing swords, and fight valiantly.

This isn't an action movie as Hollywood defines them nowadays--which usually means a non-stop series of climaxes. No, The Man in the Iron Mask takes its time getting to the big action scenes. So action movie fans weaned on The Terminator or Die Hard might find this movie to be a little slow, but that's exactly what I liked about it--it's willingness to let us get to know the characters before throwing them into life-and-death situations. And thanks to the incredible cast--with Gabriel Byrne as d'Artagnan and John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu, and Jeremy Irons in the Three Musketeers roles of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis--all of the characters are vividly brought to life. D'Artagnan (Byrne) is a melancholy and serious King of the Musketeers, who tries to protect the boyish and selfish King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio). He longs for Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud), but of course, their love is forbidden. Athos (Malkovich) wants to raise his son and live a simple life. Porthos (Depardieu) has a lust for life, though he misses the great battles of the past. And Aramis (Irons) has followed his faith, laid down the sword, and become a priest.

But many of the younger theatergoers will have purchased tickets to see Leonardo DiCaprio, and they'll get double the DiCaprio for their money, as he plays the bad King Louis XIV and the good Philippe--the king's identical twin brother, who (SPOILERS coming) has been confined to the Bastille and forced to wear an iron mask. And DiCaprio is quite good, especially as King Louis XIV, where he must be shallow and selfish but still a full-blooded character. With his long hair combed behind his ears and his arching eyebrows, he looks like a mischievous elf. (In contrast, his Philippe is only a vague outline for a character and not particularly compelling.)

The plot itself gets started when the people of France begin to revolt against the King. People are starving in Paris but the King diverts food shipments to his troops. D'Artagnan wants to see this situation remedied and he talks to the King, but the King is stubborn: "I am a young king. But I am king," says Louis XIV, refusing to bend to d'Artagnan's argument. "Then be a good king," says d'Artagnan. Meanwhile, the King has his eyes set on a new sexual conquest, Christine (Judith Godreche) who happens to be engaged to the son of Athos. To get Athos' son out of the way, the King sends him to war and then seduces Christine. The results of these two situations lead d'Artagnan, the Three Musketeers, and the King on a collision course. All d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis have ever wanted is to serve a good king: "We have all lived with the hope of one day serving a king worthy of the throne."

The Man in the Iron Mask takes its time getting to the action, mixing equal parts mystery (as the truth behind the iron mask is revealed), melodrama (as King Louis XIV attempts to bed Christine), and comedy (as Porthos becomes bored with inactivity and contemplates suicide). And the mixture works well; however, with its high-powered cast, each of whom could carry a movie on their own, The Man in the Iron Mask also frequently feels pre-fabricated. All the parts of the movie are so familiar that the movie seldom becomes surprising. The movie is too carefully plotted and designed to ever feel spontaneous. However, The Man in the Iron Mask is still loads of fun and its 131 minutes absolutely fly by. Director Randall Wallace, a first-time director who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Braveheart, gives us several visually exciting, if somewhat predictable, action sequences. You won't soon forget the movie's smoke-shrouded ending as d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis take on the King's musketeers. "What valor!"

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

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