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Swashbuckle Your Seat Belts

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 1998

  Movie Critic

Movie Scene
Leonardo DiCaprio is King Louis XIV in "The Man in the Iron Mask." (United Artists)

Randall Wallace
Leonardo DiCaprio;
Jeremy Irons;
John Malkovich;
Gabriel Byrne;
Gerard Depardieu;
Anne Parillaud;
Judith Godreche;
Peter Sarsgaard
Running Time:
2 hours, 12 minutes
For violence, nudity and coarse language
"The Man in the Iron Mask" is simply beyond judgment. What useful pearl of wisdom is there to pluck from a four-musketeering, Hollywoodized romp featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as King Louis XIV? What inspired revelation is to be gleaned from a movie in which Gerard Depardieu, Gabriel Byrne, Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich look more like Spinal Tap than Alexandre Dumas' musketeers?

The answer is: There is nothing worth getting steamed over or particularly excited about. Leonardo groupies, however, will be pleased to see that the hawk-eyed doll-boy certainly enjoys a royal share of screen time. And writer/director Randall Wallace – who wrote "Braveheart" – provides just enough swashbuckling action to keep the audience from dying in its seat.

We're in the Paris of the 1660s. The country suffers under the despotic rule of Louis XIV (DiCaprio), who beds women then tosses them away, and who doesn't care a fig for the peasants. D'Artagnan (Byrne), a former musketeer and once a popular figure in the city, has become the king's chief bodyguard. The three other musketeers are getting old and creaky. Athos (Malkovich) has spent the last few years raising his son Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard). Porthos (Depardieu) has become a tired, dirty old man who has lost his lust for life. And Aramis (Irons), a man of the cloth before becoming a musketeer, has returned to genuflecting pretty much 'round the clock.

When Louis orders D'Artagnan to find and eliminate the secret leader of the Jesuits, who opposes the king's wars, the bodyguard's investigation leads him to his former compadres. Things get even more troubling when Louis sets amorous eyes on Christine (Judith Godreche), who happens to be the girlfriend of Athos's son, Raoul. Ignoring Christine's protestations, Louis takes her for his own, and sends Raoul to the war, where he faces almost certain death.

It's time for the musketeers to fight again, this time against D'Artagnan, their old friend. Their plan includes freeing a special prisoner, the one in the iron mask, who has stewed for almost a decade in the Bastille and who presents a serious threat to the throne. (Even though United Artists – in an act of corporate stupidity beyond my ken – gives away the actor's identity in the trailer, I'll let them spoil it for you on their own.)

DiCaprio makes an appropriate strutting peacock. And the four older principals comport themselves with a sort of minimal competence. Each musketeer gets a special scene or two: Byrne awes an angry Parisian rabble into silence by spearing a lobbed rotten apple with his sword. Malkovich gets to fulminate in that theatrical, petulant voice of his. And Irons has his amusing moments.

As for Depardieu, it seems that the French actor has enjoyed a little too much wine and venison lately. At least that's the impression after seeing him parade across the screen au naturel. But he does have the movie's best line when, in a cloud of boozy despair, he declares, "I'm going to hang myself as soon as I'm sober."

It's too bad that Depardieu, the only French musketeer here, is forced to speak in halting English – and thus come across as a slurring buffoon. Had "The Man in the Iron Mask" been a French-language production, Depardieu would have played D'Artagnan, and he would have made a far more dashing and interesting figure than Byrne. But let's not get emotionally involved. This is a free market economy. If "The Man in the Iron Mask" does well at the box office, then we – like the poor rabble – should raise our goblets to the king of the moment.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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