Randall Wallace’s 1998 “The Man in the Iron Mask” is the umpteen movie adaptation of French author Alexandre Dumas’ continuing tale of his famous 3 Musketeers, which as it turns out actually has four members. (This is always the case in every movie, as it is the case in the original book, if you were wondering.) “Iron Mask” is an expensive Hollywood adaptation and has a stellar cast, and writer/director Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) is a man who likes his movies epic.
“Iron Mask” re-introduces us to the 4 Musketeers, now older men with legendary reputations. D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) is now the King’s main bodyguard; Aramis (Jeremy Irons) is a practicing priest with a secret; Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) is a drunk and womanizer; and Athos (John Malkovich) has retired from the Musketeer business and has a son, Raoul, who plans to become a Musketeer like his father.
Trouble enters the picture when spoiled boy-king Louis (Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes infatuated with Raoul’s fianc’e and sends Raoul off to fight at the front lines, where he is subsequent killed. Angered, Athos goes to seek revenge, but is thwarted by D’Artagnan, who has more than his share of secrets involving Louis and the Queen (Anne Parillaud). When a secret, bloodless revolution to depose the despicable boy-king is hatched by Aramis, the Musketeers reform to carry out a secret plan that involves replacing the boy-king with a prisoner who wears an iron mask.
The story of “Man in the Iron Mask” has been done in a variety of forms, from sitcoms to TV movies to theatrical features like this one, so I don’t hesitate to expose the film’s secret: that the man in the iron mask, the prisoner whose face has been covered and ordered never to be exposed by Louis, is in reality Philippe, Louis’ identical twin brother. The Musketeers’ plan is to replace Louis with Philippe in hopes that the new king will rule France more fairly and actually feed his people. (Remember that the French have always been socialists, they just don’t like to admit it.)
I don’t claim to be a Dumas expert, but Wallace’s “Iron Mask” has all the things that make this a “Dumas movie.” There’s political intrigue, backstabbing, forbidden romance, affairs, and last but certainly not least, the ever-present civil strife between the poor and the aristocracy (although this last part is mostly background noise). If the film “sounds” slightly wrong, it’s because American actors DiCaprio and Malkovich never bothers with a French (or even a foreign) accent. I bring this up only because the rest of the cast do have accents, so it’s a little concerting to hear supposedly French characters speak in such a variety of accents.
Despite being the only Frenchman in a very French story, Gerard Depardieu has the least to do. His Porthos is a drunken womanizer who learns he may not be able to indulge in his favorite hobby, women, and slips into (comedic) despair as a result. Irons is easily the movie’s best actor as the arrogant and self-congratulating Musketeer-turned-priest-turned-revolutionary Aramis. Malkovich does fine as Athos, although his dialogue delivery seems mismatched with the movie’s French environment. Gabriel Byrne, as the loyal D’Artagnan, has the most controlled role, which means he never really achieves more than the stoic warrior with an amazing reservoir of loyalty.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance as Louis/Philippe, but oddly enough it’s DiCaprio as the released-from-prison Philippe who excels. DiCaprio’s Louis seems too much like the DiCaprio that we read in the newspapers for anyone to think he’s stretching as an actor. His Philippe, on the other hand, is a mixture of naivet’ and cowardice, a boy who may not be up to the task that’s been entrusted to him — to save a nation.
Like many loyal adaptations of Dumas’ stories, “Iron Mask” is mostly about political conspiracies and royal maneuverings, which leave little room for all-out action. (“The Musketeer”, which takes great liberty with the legend, is an exception.) There are actually only a couple of minor skirmishes before the film’s final confrontation, which provides the bulk of the action. Despite this, I didn’t mind one bit since by now I know what to expect from a Dumas movie. Besides that, the film is quite entertaining from beginning to end, and the lack of swordplay was not a distraction.
Randall Wallace (director) / Randall Wallace (screenplay)
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio …. King Louis XIV/Philippe
Jeremy Irons …. Father Aramis the Priest
John Malkovich …. Athos
G’rard Depardieu …. Porthos
Gabriel Byrne …. Captain D’Artagnan
Anne Parillaud …. Queen Mother Anne