The Man in the Iron Mask

The Man in the Iron Mask arrives at the perfect time to capitalize on the Leo-mania left in the wake of Titanic. Here’s Leonardo DiCaprio, the current heartthrob for teenage girls, in not one but two roles. Unfortunately, neither of those roles is terribly interesting — at least not as rewritten by rookie director Randall Wallace (he wrote the script for Braveheart) from the Alexandre Dumas novel. DiCaprio is stuck playing a cardboard villain, the young and contemptible Louis XIV, and his virtuous twin brother Philippe, who’s been in prison for six years hidden behind the iron mask of the title. The former role requires a lot of pouting and bad attitude, the latter a fair helping of doe-eyed innocence and purity unsullied by imprisonment.

This Iron Mask isn’t any more of a desecration than any of the other recent Literature 90210 movies, like Great Expectations or DiCaprio’s own Romeo + Juliet. And, given that generations of readers have taken Dumas’ books as rousing adventure stories, one can’t accuse Randall Wallace of oversimplifying great art. The movie is fast-paced and colloquial, and Wallace delivers a meat-and-potatoes costume adventure. But I was still bored, my attention wandering to such improper questions as whether the twin brothers had the same hair extensions.

One problem is that, in this telling, we don’t care much about Louis or Philippe. Much more interesting, potentially, are the aging musketeers — D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), Aramis (Jeremy Irons), Athos (John Malkovich), and Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) — who yearn for their long-gone swashbuckling days and must decide what to do when the king they’ve sworn to serve is a little twerp who couldn’t care less that the people of France are starving. D’Artagnan is closer to the king (and to the Queen Mother, played by Anne Parillaud) than are his former confederates, who plot to remove Louis and replace him with Philippe.

The casting of the musketeers is hit-and-miss. As has been pointed out elsewhere, Depardieu is the only one of them who actually is French, and you watch him up there with the other Brits and Americans and think, “What’s this French guy doing here?” Nevertheless, his rude-boy performance (he’s like John Belushi dropped into the midst of Masterpiece Theatre) is the best reason to see the movie, and Jeremy Irons continues to have one of the most exquisite voices in sound films; I was tempted several times to close my eyes and enjoy his phrasing of such otherwise dull lines as “I will kill him and the man who told me about him.”

The other two musketeers are a problem. Malkovich, at this point, can’t be bothered to create a character. He just shows up on the set and reads his lines in the same dead, fey voice he’s used in every movie from The Killing Fields to Con Air. And Byrne’s performance as the conflicted D’Artagnan seems too close to his Tom Regan in Miller’s Crossing — I kept expecting him to dream about a hat. I was glad to see the British comedian Hugh Laurie as one of Louis’ yes-men, but he’s killed off almost as soon as he’s introduced. Unfortunately, Judith Godreche doesn’t share that fate; she plays Christine, a sweet, poor girl whom Louis steals from Athos’s son, and she’s like a French Demi Moore — with all the blandness that implies.

Speaking of blandness: Leonardo DiCaprio’s career seems to be regressing. Once capable of complex work in This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, he now appears to be trapped in his new role as the late-’90s cover boy. Certainly The Man in the Iron Mask milks the hell out of him. He was aggressively awful as the bratty Rimbaud in Total Eclipse, but I’d almost rather see that again — at least it was an attempt at something challenging and different — than Leo’s pretty-boy performances here. He needs to work with someone like John Waters, who paved the way for Johnny Depp to transcend his dreamboat image by parodying it. The Man in the Iron Mask verges on unconscious parody. I like DiCaprio, and I wish he’d take off the iron mask of stardom and show us his real face again.

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Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, adaptation

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