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'Iron Mask,' Short on Swordplay

By Rita Kempley
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 Three Musketeers, a rusty trio of middle-aged retirees, have all but changed their motto from "All for one and one for all" to "I have fallen and I can't get up" in this less-than-rollicking adaptation of "The Man in the Iron Mask." But, like the finest of French bordeaux, the graying comrades have acquired richer, more complex characters with age.

Still, they're not the Devil-may-care swashbucklers they once were, and their nostalgia for their youthful prowess and bygone glory days colors this flat retelling of Alexandre Dumas' tale. When Athos (John Malkovich), Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) and Aramis (Jeremy Irons) finally brandish their swords, derring is long overdue.

Set in France circa 1660, this handsome epic centers on Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio), an imperious priss-pot who replaced the noble ruler the heroes gallantly served as members of the King's Royal Guards.

DiCaprio, straight from his rollicking pauper's role in "Titanic," doesn't make much of a lecherous tyrant. (For that, see Billy Zane.) DiCaprio is very much the callow snot, but he's still wet behind the sneers when it comes to conveying monstrous cruelty. With his lust for women and fancy threads, the teen king seems to need a trip to Paris, all right, Parris Island.

DiCaprio is far more comfortable when playing the pure-hearted, right-thinking Philippe, the king's twin brother. Reared without knowing his true identity, Philippe has had access to less than nothing. Yet he has emerged from poverty and imprisonment the most compassionate of men and becomes the key to changing French history.

Randall Wallace, the Oscar-nominated writer of "Braveheart," makes his directorial debut with this tame reworking of Dumas' novel. The themes and values of the piece are similar, but they're presented without the zealousness Mel Gibson brought to the brawny kilt drama. The yarn does get off to a pants-splitting start, though, thanks to Porthos, who demonstrates conclusively that there was no Beano in the 17th century.

The boisterous, big-bellied old sot has spent his early retirement in the pursuit of wine and women. But neither has replaced the camaraderie he shared with Aramis, now a Jesuit brother, and Athos, who has devoted himself to rearing his son, Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard). Though neither seems to have missed the glory days so much as Porthos, Louis' villainy gradually forces the trio back into the fray.

The already unfocused story becomes downright soap-operatic with the addition of the woes of D'Artagnan (introspective Gabriel Byrne). An old friend who is now the head of the Royal Guard, D'Artagnan remains boneheadedly loyal to the brat king for reasons the Musketeers can't fathom. Hmmm. Could it have something to do with the lidded glances he shares with the queen mother (Anne Parillaud)?

Chicanery among the courtiers, the king's insistent pursuit of Raoul's fiancee (Judith Godreche), Porthos's suicide attempts: "The Man in the Iron Mask" doesn't lack for complications but for swordplay. Aside from a climactic clash between the heroes and the Royal Guard, the cutlery pretty much stays on the table.

Writer-director Wallace seems more interested in the inner Musketeer, how each carries the weight of the years or adjusts to loss and disappointment. The actors, especially Byrne and Malkovich, can sag with the resignation of middle age when need be, but they are clearly itching to play with their swords.

Fat chance! Boomers in bloomers and plumed hats spend more time parrying their own foibles than the tyrant's foils.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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