The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
Some movies get made because a writer or director has a personal vision, a story that wants to be told. Some movies get made for money. Then there are the movies in which neither art nor commerce are apparent motivators. They're made just because they can be, because the effects technology exists. With relatively new digital effects technology now widely available, we're in a period in which a lot of these latter movies are being made, with results that are generally as uninspiring as the movie is uninspired. *The Man In The Iron Mask* is just such a movie.
Writer-director Randall Wallace adds enough soap to drown the oft-told Alexandre Dumas pere tale in suds. Wallace postulates that the man in the mask is the twin brother of King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio), an unfortunate lad named Phillippe (also DiCaprio, of course) who had the misfortune to be born second. Whisked away at birth, Phillippe is imprisoned while still a tender, dewy young teen, locked in the horrible mask and forced to live in wretched conditions in an island prison. Naturally, the experience only strengthens his native nobility, while Louis, spoiled young king that he is, spends his days chasing tail, and being imperious and uncaring.
The movie is far more interested in Musketeers than the titular man in the mask, however, since inner torment and all that don't require a lot of swashbuckling and special effects. *The Man In The Iron Mask* plays like a literal sequel to The Three Musketeers, a sort of where-are-they-now followup that allows the old boys one last moment of glory -- and provides numerous opportunities, none of which are wasted, to say "One for all and all for one." D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), now the top Musketeer, watches his king with disdain, but undying loyalty. The three musketeers, meanwhile, have all retired from the king's service. Aramis (Jeremy Irons) is a devout Jesuit priest; Porthos (Gerard Depardieu, broadly buffoonish) spends his days wenching (there is no shortage of pouty wenches in 1662 Paris, apparently) and lamenting his lost virility; Athos (John Malkovich) plays Mr Mom to Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard, executing a hilarious, pitch-perfect vocal impersonation of Malkovich), the fine young son who is about to join the Musketeers. This France abounds with different accents -- English, French, American (although the USA didn't exist for another 120 years) -- but consistency and authenticity are secondary concerns in *The Man In The Iron Mask*, as are character and drama. Secret passageways, gruesome tombs, flatulent Musketeers and hokey speeches take center stage, along with a supremely corny take on knee-jerk nobility and patriotism.
After establishing that Louis is a vain womanizer and a very bad king, the plot slowly lurches forward. The filthy peasants of Paris riot because they are starving and the king distributes rotten food. Louis orders them shot. Then Louis sends Raoul to the front so he can make time with his comely fiancee Christine (Judith Godreche), with whom Louis appears to be genuinely in love. Will the king's treachery never end? It's all too much for the disillusioned Musketeers, who plot to switch Louis with Phillippe, busting the poor boy out of prison with surprisingly little effort.
Phillippe emerges from the mask looking like wolf boy, but after a shave, a bath, and a bit of lip balm, he's a beautifully androgynous, milky-skinned young thing who, aside from the tenderness in his eyes, is a dead ringer for the king. DiCaprio is much more convincing as the wounded bird Phillippe than as bad boy Louis -- the imperious bed hopper seems more an imposter than the timid, confused prisoner. The cumbersome dialogue doesn't help -- Louis' come ons include such absurdities as "I hope you realize there is more of me to love... than a crown." Phillippe doesn't fare much better, forced to utter such inanities as "I wear the mask, it does not wear me."
DiCaprio really sinks his teeth into the role of king once Phillippe arrives in the palace, however, playing against himself with zest. Unfortunately, this, and all the other interesting parts of the movie are saved for the last ten minutes. Louis loses his kingly cool, lapsing into screaming hissy fits, his voice rising an octave as he shrieks at the pretender who, maddeningly, oozes nobility, royalty and loyalty with moist, puppy dog eyes which, although she won't admit it, makes the Queen Mother (Anne Parillaud) like Phillippe better. A few dozen more "One for alls," a bit of swordplay, a wowser of a soapy twist and a lot of straining for emotional effect, and everything is right in France again.
This is the umpteenth screen version of *The Man In The Iron Mask*, and the only justification for this inane adaptation is to take advantage of special effects that put the twin DiCaprios together onscreen. It's a perfectly executed effect, but not enough to justify the rest of this dreary, ridiculous movie.