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The Man in the Iron Mask(1998)
It is a time of both splendor and despair. France's self-serving King Louis XIV enjoys the riches of the world while his people die of starvation. Believing that he is all-powerful, Louis fears no one--except the one person who could bring his reign to an end: the man in he imprisoned for eternity behind a mask of iron. And when Louis' selfish excesses go too far, retired Musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis vow to free the mysterious prisoner who may be France's only hope for survival. Only one question remains: will their old comrade, the legendary D'Artagnan, help them--or destroy them?
For more about The Man in the Iron Mask and The Man in the Iron Mask Blu-ray release, see The Man in the Iron Mask Blu-ray Review
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gérard Depardieu, Gabriel Byrne, Anne Parillaud
Director: Randall Wallace
» See full cast & crew
The Man in the Iron Mask Blu-ray Review
Swash-buckles under its own weight.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, May 12, 2010
When The Man in the Iron Mask was released in 1998, that other Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle, Titanic, was still sitting high on the charts after some five months as #1 film in America. By this point, Leo's boyish mug was ubiquitous, tacked to every pink bedroom wall and taped up in lockers across the country. A heartthrob was born. Also riding a wave of success was writer Randall Wallace, who had previously penned 1995's bring-grown- men-to-tears epic Braveheart and was looking to keep the momentum going with Iron Mask, his directorial debut. While the film would find financial success—grossing over $180 million, presumably from hormonal tween-age girls hungry for their next Leo fix—it was a critical flop, drawn out and unfocused, all set-up and no pay-off.
Very loosely based on the third part of Alexander Dumas' serialized novel The Vicomte of Bragelonne—which was also adapted for film, most notably, in 1939 and 1979—The Man in the Iron Mask tells the story of two royal, identical twin brothers, both played by Leo DiCaprio, who are separated at birth. The firstborn, Louis, ascends to kingship and becomes an insufferable, militaristic prick, warring with the Dutch and letting the Parisian peasants sink into poverty. Fearing rivalry, he also shuts his brother Philippe up in the Bastille, an iron mask clamped tightly over his face. We know Louis is a self-entitled douchebag because he totally pulls a David and Bathsheba move on pretty court-maiden Christine Bellefort (Judith Godrèche), sending her fiancé Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard) to die on the front lines. This seriously peeves Raoul's father, former musketeer Athos (John Malkovich), who wants to see the king dethroned at any cost. With the exception of D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), whose loyalty to the king is conspicuously unwavering, Athos' one for all, all for one musketeer buddies—Jesuit priest Aramis (Jeremy Irons) and bawdy brawler Porthos (Gerard Depardieu)—agree to join his cause, and hatch a plot to replace Louis with his twin brother during a masked ball. This is, of course, no easy task, especially with D'Artagnan keeping watch as the king's head of security.
There's a scene in The Man in the Iron Mask that's indicative of the entire film. Fittingly, it happens at the beginning, setting the movie's off-kilter tone. Aramis is kneeling piously in his study, trying with utmost seriousness to pray, when seedy old Porthos busts into the room with three plump prostitutes in tow. He proceeds to espouse upon the joys of "a good pair of tits," annoying the saintly Aramis, who proffers that forgiveness is a more sublime sensation than lust. "Forgiveness?" replies Porthos, who then emits an enormous pants-ripping fart. "There…am I forgiven? Come on, am I forgiven?" The exchange is a microcosm of the film's problems. The Man in the Iron Mask can't decide if it wants to be Aramis—clear eyed, self-serious, intoning a prayer to brotherhood and loyalty—or Porthos, a roly poly romp dependent on physical humor, sight gags, and silliness.
Writer/director Randall Wallace seems to know that some comic relief is required, but he has trouble striking a good balance, sometimes wallowing in the noble, stiff-lipped masculinity of Braveheart, and other times playing it all for laughs, with Depardieu galumphing nakedly through a farmyard or having an impotent roll in the hay with three busty barn-maids (expect jokes about the straightness of his, um, sword). This unevenness extends to the narrative, which loses focus trying to track a multitude of subplots. How are the Jesuits involved? What purpose do Christine and Raoul play in the overall story? There's a lot of set-up, but very little resolution to most of these threads. Christine's line, in particular, leads nowhere—she's merely the means to a narrative end.
Even the swordplay is a disappointment. We don't witness a major steel against steel skirmish until an hour and a half into the film, and the closest thing we get to an "action set piece" is the musketeers flashing their swords while standing in a dinghy, hoping to make an escape before the king's men lower the gate. Thrilling. The climax is a bit better—our heroes are trapped in the Bastille, with Louis' troops blocking all avenues of escape—but even this scene devolves into a clumsily edited action film cliché, with the baddies unable to hit anything with their rifles. The film's cinematic low point, however, is the inevitable training montage, a compressed sequence where the musketeers teach Philippe all the ins and outs of being a king, which seems to mostly involve sitting on a horse and dancing like an idiot.
The acting is better, but only marginally. For as much as Depardieu's flights of crude fancy ruin the film's attempts at weightiness, with his honker of a nose and lusty joie de vivre, he's really the only out and out entertainment to be found in this historical debacle. (Although I did get a big kick seeing Leo punch himself—that is, his twin—in the face.) Jeremy Irons and Gabriel Byrne carry the more serious elements of the story well—the secretive scheming and wariness, the paternal pride—but they're fighting a losing battle against a script that doesn't give them much dramatic leeway. The outright weirdest performances come from the young Peter Sarsgaard and his in-film father John Malkovich. Sarsgaard stumbles through perpetually stilted line readings —my wife said, "I bet this film is what Maggie Gyllenhaal puts on when she wants to embarrass him"—and Malkovich employs his dry, singsong cadence to ill effect, sounding like a hippy William Shatner on quaaludes. Which brings us to everyone's favorite mid-90s Tiger Beat pin-up, Leonardo DiCaprio, who, hot off his Titanic success, once again gets to be king of the world, or, at least, France. Leo's role(s) here requires him to have a kind of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde dualism, and he plays it a bit too obviously, making Louis irredeemably petulant and Philippe a namby-pamby do-gooder. I suppose this is appropriate though, as the movie itself has trouble with its own two-faced act.
The Man in the Iron Mask Blu-ray, Video Quality
MGM brings The Man in the Iron Mask to Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that's hit or miss. The first thing you'll notice is that colors during the outdoor daylight scenes seem oversaturated and overexposed. Take, for instance, the "pig chase" sequence. Primaries, especially reds, are much too hot here, and skin tones come across as ruddy and pinkish as the pig itself. Thankfully, much of the film takes place indoors, where the simulated candlelight is less harsh on the eye and colors look much more natural, allowing the vividly hued costumes to stand out without feeling blown out. Black levels are also slightly variable, crushing detail and looking too dark during many of the scenes in the Bastille, but otherwise staying spot-on and carving out a decent sense of contrast.
The film is most consistent when it comes to overall clarity. Yes, there's some occasional softness, but most of the time the picture is nicely resolved, allowing us to see all the intricacies of the costume work and set design. Close-ups display plenty of fine detail, from the texture of D'Artagnan's skin to the roughly hewn surface of the iron mask. Grain is apparent in the image, but there are times when textures soften and faces take on a slightly waxy look, suggesting the use of DNR. That said, no one has gone overboard with the noise reduction, and the picture still looks appropriately filmic. As for compression, the film fits with plenty of room on a 50 GB disc, and aside from sporadic noise during the darker scenes, I didn't spot any other artifacts or anomalies. (Although there were two or three instances where I noticed some minor telecine wobble.) My biggest qualm here is with the color reproduction, though the overexposure looks as if it happened in-camera and not during post-production color tweaking.
The Man in the Iron Mask Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Man in the Iron Mask swashbuckles onto Blu-ray with a strong but somewhat graceless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Dynamics are tight and punchy, with nice low-end rumble during some of the explosive action moments and razor-sharp clarity in more delicate sounds, like the metal-on-metal schwing of a sword being unsheathed. The strings in Nick Glennie-Smith's score are rich and sweeping, and the music in general carries more than enough heft, blasting with spread and detail from the front speakers as well as being bled into the rears to fill out the sound space. The gracelessness that I mentioned above, however, has to do with the other ways that the surround channels are utilized. You'll hear plenty of activity throughout the film—cannons blasting, volleys of gunfire pinging between speakers, a blade flipping end over end, etc.—but many of the cross-channel effects feel heavy-handed, standing out awkwardly from the surrounding sounds. Much more effective are the ambient noises—a babbling stream, sprinklers on the palace lawn, the jeers of Parisian peasants—which don't exactly create a convincing audio world, but do add to the experience. Dialogue throughout is clean, clear, and easily discernable, and everything is balanced quite well, so that no volume boosting or diminishing is required.
The Man in the Iron Mask Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Commentary by Writer/Director Randall Wallace
Wallace is so good-natured and earnest about the film that it's hard not to enjoy this commentary, despite the fact that he frequently lapses into silence.
Myth and the Musketeers (SD, 7:35)
This brief featurette unravels the facts and fictions of Dumas' Three Musketeers stories, thanks to interviews with several professors of French Literature and actor Michael York, who played D'Artagnan in a 1979 film.
Director's Take (SD, 29:12 total)
Think of this as a compacted version of director Randall Wallace's commentary. In these five segments, he discusses the challenge of writing the film, his experience as a first time director, the casting process, various elements of the production, and a few parting words. On-set footage and clips from the film are mixed in with the interviews.
Original 1998 Behind the Scenes Featurette (SD, 4:45)
This is really just an EPK promo piece, featuring some behind-the-scenes footage and a few quick interviews with the director and stars.
Alternate Mask Prototypes (SD, 2:02)
Here, the director talks about the process of deciding upon a style for the mask, while alternate designs play across the screen.
Theatrical Trailer 1 (1080p, 3:03)
Theatrical Trailer 2 (1080p, 2:01)
The Man in the Iron Mask Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Man in the Iron Mask had potential—a great cast, a thrilling historical adventure, Leo in two roles (Okay, that last bit was sarcasm)—but it gets tripped up in too many plotlines and bogged down by a lack of real action. It's passable entertainment, and will probably still appeal to those longtime Leo fans who were 11-16 when the film came out, but it doesn't warrant more than a rental.
The Man in the Iron Mask Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Hang 'Em High, Man in the Iron Mask Blu-ray - March 26, 2010
An early announcement to retailers indicates that MGM will release two catalog titles on May 11: Hang 'Em High, a 1968 western starring Clint Eastwood; and The Man in the Iron Mask, the 1998 retelling of the Alexandre Dumas novel with an all-star cast. As with ...
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