There is a man in a prison who was forced to wear an iron mask. We hear the guards wondering aloud whether or not he’s still alive before feeding him his daily slice of bread. Imprisoned for crimes which he doesn’t even understand, this man is our title figure, but not really our focus. You might expect a film headed by Leonardo DiCaprio (here giving two performances) to have him as the lead, but that’s not the case. He’s important, but not the man who carries the film.
Instead, that task falls to four men, three of whom we’re supposed to cheer for during most of the film, while the other is a pseudo-villain. The three good guys, retired musketeers you might be familiar with, are named Aarmis (Jeremy Irons), Athos (John Malkovich), and Porthos (Gérard Depardieu). The maybe a villain, but maybe not, is D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), a man who serves the current King of France, Louis (DiCaprio), with due diligence. He knows of the musketeers’ scheme, yet refuses to take part because of his loyalty to the Crown.
What is that plan? The men have decided that the tyrannical king — we see him starving people by sending them spoiled food, while also plotting to eliminate a man to get at his fiance-to-be — must be removed from power. They have devised a way to accomplish this by freeing the titular masked man and using him to replace the king. See, unbeknownst to most of the world, Louis had a twin brother who ended up imprisoned because only one can rule the throne, I guess. The musketeers plan to swap the two, capture the current king, and allow the new man, Phillipe, to rule from now on.
Of course, no plan is without its problems. The main one here is that Phillipe is the polar-opposite of his brother, and has also been in jail for the past six years. He knows little about his brother, how he currently acts, and even what society is like. He’s unfit to rule, basically, and will never convince the guards that he’s the actual king (which he has to for at least one night because D’Artagnan knows something is up considering our main characters told him).
You can see how this could result in a lot of fun, right? There’s the scheming, the execution, and then, assuming it all goes fine up until this point, the aftermath. One wrong move could mess everything up, and given how terrible Louis is portrayed to be, it’s entirely possible that if the musketeers are caught, they’ll be killed along with Phillipe. Tension is almost automatic, and yet, The Man in the Iron Mask isn’t filled with much of that.
Instead, we spend a very, very long time building up to the execution part, filled with a bunch of drama that doesn’t work. For instance, you’ll be surprised to know that Peter Saarsgard appears as Athos’ son, Raoul, who is about to be engaged to a woman named Christine (Judith Godrèche). Eventually, Christine wins up with the king, and Raoul ends up married to a grave, shot dead by a cannon. This subplot takes so long to play out and it holds such little emotional purpose that it almost would have been better to exclude it, or at least make it more interesting.
What do you expect from a film starring the Three Musketeers? Do you hope to see a bunch of attempted drama, or do you want to see the characters getting involved in some swashbuckling fun? I know I would prefer the latter, especially after seeing a film like The Man in the Iron Mask. There isn’t enough to these people, not if you take the film’s word for it, anyway, meaning the drama falls flat. When you’re banking on that for about 110 minutes of a 130 minute film, you’re really hoping the audience is going to give you a break.
Or, perhaps, you’re hoping that the pretty costumes and sets will keep their attention so they’ll realize that there hasn’t been an action scene for an hour now. Sure the film looks good — although, really, most period films look good, even if this one had me wondering why everyone spoke in a different accent (English, French, or American) — but when you’re trying to determine whether or not you’re involved, most of the time, I had to recognize that I wasn’t. The last twenty minutes are great, as the characters actually get to have fun with some action scenes, but for the most part, this is a drama involving characters not interesting enough to carry the film.
I like most of the actors involved. I like DiCaprio, although here he seemed uncomfortable at the best of times. I really enjoy Jeremy Irons, who is probably my favorite actor in this thing. He, and the other more elderly characters carry The Man in the Iron Mask, and if it weren’t for their dedicated performances, this film probably wouldn’t be even tolerable. Gabriel Byrne is also very fun to watch, although his character ambiguity didn’t work. Then again, why would it work if the other drama also falls apart?
The Man in the Iron Mask is a film that went in completely the wrong direction. It needed to be more action focused, as that’s what its characters demand. But instead, a dramatic route was taken, resulting in a boring and overlong film that, despite looking great, features far less depth than one needs to care. Even though the last twenty minutes are very enjoyable, a great idea is largely wasted here.