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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/21/98

The Man in the Iron Mask
1998 (1998) MGM

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: C-
A first-rate cast can't quite save this unfocused tale of an attempt to overthrow the cruel King Louis XIV, by no less than the Three Musketeers. It's a real shame - this film should have been better.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/C+
Generally a very good 16x9-enhanced transfer, and good Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, but a mixed batch of extras disappoint.

Overall Rating: C+
Not exactly worth buying for the film unless you really like the cast, nor is it saved by the extras. But the disc is good quality, so if you're a big DiCaprio fan, dig in.

Specs and Features

132 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, pan & scan, single-layered, dual-sided, Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary from writer/director Randall Wallace, brief video of alternate mask concepts, storyboards/conceptual drawings, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens (with background music), scene access (36 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Close Captioned


Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first film role after Titanic) stars as King Louis, a heartless and arrogant monarch, who cares more for making war and attending to his romantic affairs, than for feeding his starving people. When Louis takes a fancy toward the would-be fiancee of one of his young soldiers, he issues orders which send the soldier to his death in battle. Competition so dispatched, Louis makes his move on the young woman. But there's a problem: the slain soldier's father is none other than Athos (John Malkovich), one of the original Three Musketeers.

Long retired, the Three Musketeers have gone their own way, each having grown weary of serving an unjust King. But enraged at his son's death, Athos enlists the help of his former comrades Aramis (Jeremy Irons) and Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) to extract his revenge. Aramis sees this as the opportunity he's been waiting for. He's been acting as a long-time adviser to Louis, while secretly leading a Jesuit insurrection against him. He's even developed a plan for overthrowing the King. But he knows they'll eventually have to face the leader of the King's bodyguards; the noble D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), their old friend and the Fourth Musketeer, who remains honor-bound by his oath of service to Louis. And before they can initiate their plan, they'll have to save the one man who can make it all work… the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask.

This is one of those cases where a movie just really irritates you, not because it's so bad (and it is pretty bad), but because it could have been really very good. There are two factors at work here, and the first is a MAJOR problem with the script. Right out of the gate, this film goes nowhere for a long time. Nothing really happens until the death of Raoul (Athos's son), nearly thirty minutes into the film. The setup and character introductions could have been done in half the time. It's hard to believe that the script was penned by the same writer who gave us Braveheart (Randall Wallace, who also directed here). Two subplots, one of the Jesuit insurrection and another of rioting by dissatisfied French citizens, are thrown in early and left unaddressed through most of the film (yet, of course, everything ties up nicely in the end). Whereas Braveheart had moments of humor that worked, the ones in Man with the Iron Mask don't. Poor Gerard Depardieu as Porthos takes the brunt of the jokes. Some of this could have been funny - the idea was to make his character out to be a lovable oaf. But Porthos gets hit by bird crap, he interrupts Athos' prayers with a fart, thus starting a full-out brawl (yes, Depardieu and Jeremy Irons in a brawl)… it goes on. There is one moment that gave me a laugh: Porthos, naked, drunk and feeling useless, tries to hang himself in a barn. But Athos has sawed the beam he's using, so that not only can Porthos not hang himself, when he tries, the whole barn collapses on top of him. It is a genuinely funny moment, enough to make you really wish this film was better than it is.

That brings us to the other problem with Man in the Iron Mask - lackluster direction. Most of the staging here is unoriginal, the scenes largely lacking in any kind of energy or intensity. And all the action is pretty standard, from a number of infiltration scenarios to mostly typical swordplay. It's almost as if the logistics of making this film overwhelmed Wallace, distracting him from imbuing this film with any kind of style or vision. But not all is lost here. The beauty of Braveheart was it's originality, and it's depiction of bravery in the face of unbeatable odds. And there are one or two such moments here, rousing and full of sentiment. In a scene near the end of the film, the Musketeers find themselves trapped in the dungeons of the Bastille, where Louis' soldiers have them surrounded. Knowing that they'll likely die, they make one last brave charge, planning to go out in a blaze of glory. Louis' soldiers see the Musketeers approaching, and are stunned at the display of heroism - these men are their heroes. They open fire reluctantly, and can't bear to look as the lead flies, smoke obscuring everything. It's a very powerful moment. But alas, it all falls to pieces. I don't wish to give away the conclusion of this scene, but suffice it to say, that what transpires when the smoke clears seriously defies plausibility.

By any standard of measure, this is heavy-hitting cast. And in general, the performances are all very good. DiCaprio is the sole exception. Playing a dual role, he's uneven - very good at times, very bad at others. John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons struggle admirably to raise the caliber of at least their material, and for the most part, they do. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, Gerard Depardieu is just stuck mulling his way through way too much bad dialogue and silly scenes, although he does manage to create a fairly likable character. But it's Gabriel Byrne who really stands out here, as an honorable warrior who feels torn between his oath to protect a King in whom he has dwindling faith, and his allegiance to his friends. Unfortunately, though the talent here is impressive, but it just isn't quite enough.

Despite mediocre filmmaking, the disc quality (at least the audio and video) is generally very good. The 16x9-enhanced widescreen picture is clear, with good color and contrast, although the transfer isn't quite as impressive as some other recent DVDs. The pan & scan side is equally good (although I have little patience for watching pan & scan). There is some occasional artifacting in evidence on both versions, but nothing I found distracting. All in all, the DVD benefits from the use of a very good print for the transfer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is also generally good, with showy use of the surround channels in one or two of the battle sequences. Not great, but not bad either.

The extras however, are extremely lackluster. There's a trailer that entirely fails to captivate, and a section called Alternate Mask Concepts that amounts to about a two minute video, showing the same 3 or 4 masks again and again. The Storyboards and Conceptual Drawings leave a lot to be desired - they look great, but there's only seven drawings in all, so why even bother. All of the production notes you would normally find on a DVD are put in the booklet that accompanies the disc. And the commentary track by writer/director Wallace is more than a bit dry. The sad thing is that you can really sense that he has a love and passion for the material - he just fails almost entirely in bringing it to the screen. There are moments where he talks about having only a very short period of time to shoot this scene or that scene, and you begin to understand how the morass of production swallowed the creative fire that this film may have had.

Bottom line

I really wish I could recommend The Man in the Iron Mask, but I'm not sure that I can. I definitely wanted to like this film more than I was finally able. There are some good moments, and Byrne is excellent, but overall it's a very mixed bag. The same applies to the disc - some decent video and audio (as DVDs go), but laden with a boring and paltry set of extras. I loved Braveheart, so I can only hope Wallace's next project (On the Wings of Eagles, set for release next year) is better.

Bill Hunt
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