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THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK

by: Scott Renshaw

In the depths of Paris' infamous Bastille, circa 1662, five figures stand.  One man is the reason the other four have gathered:  he is Phillippe (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- the long-imprisoned twin brother of King Louis XIV (also DiCaprio) -- rescued by these benefactors to replace his despotic sibling on the throne.  The four other men are figures of legend: retired Musketeers Aramis (Jeremy Irons), Athos (John Malkovich) and Pothos (Gerard Depardieu), reunited with their old comrade D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne).  As they prepare to face the King's guard, armaments and odds heavily against them, the figures cross their swords and utter one of literature's best-known oaths of allegiance:  "One for all, all for one."

It is the moment most of the audience -- the non-teenage-female, DiCaprio-swooning portion -- has been waiting for.  It is a moment guaranteed to inspire pseudo-spontaneous applause and whoops of approval...assuming the audience hasn't drifted into a heavy slumber.  For around 100 minutes, Randall Wallace's rendition of THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK wanders through attractive sets in search of a consistent tone, thematic coherence or even a real point.  Is it a lavish, lusty period romp in the spirit of Richard Lester's 1970s MUSKETEERS films?  Is it a moody Dickensian pot-boiler of a mysterious parentage and uncertain motivations?  Is it a showcase for Tiger Beat poster-boy-du-jour DiCaprio? Is it ever going to get down to the business of Musketeers buckling a few swashes?  Wallace effectively combined vengeance, romance and adventure in his script for BRAVEHEART, but in his first film behind the camera he never seems clear how to unite all the elements he introduces. THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK sputters and hesitates like the work of a nervous rookie who just keeps throwing stuff at the screen in the vain hope that, eventually, something's gotta stick.

The uninvolving and ponderous first hour and a half leaves a viewer plenty of time to scratch at minor annoyances until they become major annoyances.  Meticulously smudged rabble rouse themselves for a minor riot for exactly one scene, perhaps to distract momentarily from the impression that this is an epic with a cast of tens.  Half the cast speaks with French accents (all genuine, courtesy Depardieu, Anne Parillaud and plasticine ingenue Judith Godreche), while the other half appears to have wandered in from Malibu, or London, or Dublin.  Given the chance to bite into Louis XIV's nastiness with relish, DiCaprio instead gives him a tiresome Method twist which suggests he just wants to be loved.  And who is Peter Sarsgaard (playing the son of Aramis), and has anyone ever done a more frighteningly dead-on impression of John Malkovich?

All might have been forgiven if only Wallace had played the Musketeer trump card for all it was worth.  He's got viewers right where he wants them with such iconic characters at his disposal; the good will is as palpable as it is at a James Bond film, where the mere utterance of a trademark phrase generates a ripple of excitement.  There's just no good excuse to waste that kind of good will on one or two rounds of lackluster swordplay.  Dumas wrote wonderful pulp; Wallace tries to turn that pulp into something it's not, only he's not exactly sure what that is.  THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK is a big muddled mess of an adventure yarn, satisfying only for those interested in going to watch DiCaprio in regal finery looking his prettiest.  Others will find a waste of stellar cast and classic story which never gets a handle on what the film should have been about for the average viewer:  a chance to cheer for the crossed swords of re-born legends just a bit earlier than 100 minutes after the lights go down.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 Louis Louis's:  4.

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