Once more, with panache Review: Lastest Musketeers film, 'The Man in the Iron Mask,' is brilliantly cast and acted, if not a thrill a minute.

March 13, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

If only "The Man in the Iron Mask" were as exciting as it is glorious.

Inspired by Alexandre Dumas' 1850 novel, the film couldn't have been cast better, bringing together four great, robust actors in support of one of Hollywood's hottest faces (the film proves, if proving is still necessary, that Leonardo DiCaprio is here to stay). It tells a poignant, heart-wrenching story, as the aging Three Musketeers (plus D'Artagnan) struggle to cope with advancing age and declining humanity. And it features a witty, literate script that manages to humanize its mythic figures without tarnishing their legends (although it does tarnish Dumas' story, reworking it to better reflect the feel-good '90s).

But first-time director Randall Wallace, who wrote the screenplays for both this film and "Braveheart," simply can't pull everything together. His sword fights, which should provide the film's most breathtaking passages, are surprisingly quiet and over in a flash. Regrettably, his camera has nowhere near the panache of his actors.

Not that that panache would be easy to match. As the fabled Musketeers, loyal guardians of the French king, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu and Gabriel Byrne are themselves worth the price of admission. Their characters are filled with nobility, civility and chivalry; they're everything the romantics would have us believe about the centuries when kings ruled the world. Best of all, they're great fun to watch.

The year is 1660. Their exploits having already passed into legend, Aramis, Athos and Porthos (Irons, Malkovich and Depardieu) have largely retired, secure in the hearts of their countrymen. Only D'Artagnan (Byrne) remains in service to the king, as captain of the royal guard.

But they're not making kings like they used to, in the days when the Musketeers rose to glory under Louis XIII. Young Louis XIV (DiCaprio) is doing his best to ruin France. Vain, spoiled and headstrong, Louis "helps" his starving subjects by handing over boatloads of spoiled food, then orders the ingrates shot for demanding better. Enraged by the Jesuits' calls for reform, he tells retired Musketeer Aramis (Irons) to seek out the head of the religious order and kill him.

When a beautiful young woman catches his eye, Louis increases his chances of bedding her by sending a rival suitor off to war. Little matter that the suitor already has performed valiantly in battle, that he is in training to be a musketeer himself, or that he is the son of the legendary Athos (Malkovich).

Such treachery cannot go unpunished, even in a king; only D'Artagnan refuses to conspire against his sovereign. Aramis, Athos and Porthos concoct an elaborate plot to replace Louis with his twin brother, Phillippe (DiCaprio again), who has been languishing in the Bastille for six years, his features hidden beneath an iron mask.

DiCaprio makes such an indelible impression as the evil Louis -- he's utterly charming while wooing the beautiful Christine (Judith Godreche), perfectly chilling when reminding D'Artagnan, "I am a young king, but I am still king" -- it's hard to believe he'll work as well as the kinder, nobler Phillippe.

But he does, softening his face and ratcheting down the malevolence that shines through his eyes. It's a transition a lesser actor would pull off by resorting to histrionics. DiCaprio, however, underplays the differences, letting audiences understand that what separates Louis from Phillippe is only a shade of gray.

As for the fabled Musketeers, it's almost impossible to pick a favorite.

Aramis is clearly the brains of the bunch, not to mention its spiritual center. Who could play him better than Irons, who practically has a patent on the adjective "cunning"? Malkovich is appropriately passionate as the wronged Athos, while Depardieu lustily portrays the comical Porthos, who bemoans how the DTC advancing years have compromised his virility even while maintaining what is clearly one of Paris' most active sex lives.

And Byrne, the lone actor among the four Musketeers without a previous Oscar nomination to his credit, nearly outshines them all as D'Artagnan, a man torn between loyalty to his king and devotion to his friends and their glorious past.

"The Man in the Iron Mask" is a clear throwback to the Saturday matinees of yesteryear, epics that had a generation of youngsters parrying each other with plastic swords. In the hands of a more capable director, it could have been the film that proved such tales didn't die with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn; that it comes as close as it does suggests there's life in those swashbuckling bones yet.

'The Man in the Iron Mask'

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu and Gabriel Byrne.

Directed by Randall Wallace.

Released by United Artists.

Rated PG-13 (violence, brief nudity)

Sun score: ** 1/2

**** = excellent

*** = good

** = fair

* = poor

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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