A Losing Battle
There's no point to this Dumas adaptation.
By Donna Bowman and Noel Murray
MARCH 23, 1998: Alexandre Dumas' novel The Man in the Iron Mask was the third in a series of novels that began with The Three Musketeers and continued in Twenty Years After. In the first installment, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan defended king and country. But by the third book, the monarchy is corrupt, and the musketeers must reunite to save France from incipient revolution. They concoct a plan to replace the king with his secret twin, whose face has been hidden behind a mask for six years. Swashbuckling adventure meets historical mystery as the aging heroes confront their duty in an unfamiliar age.
The new movie version of this tale does its best to jump off from the historical mystery--who was the faceless prisoner in the Bastille?--while at the same time evoking the spirit of the oft-filmed musketeers. But this story was never meant to stand alone. Its themes of honor and conscience flow from D'Artagnan's enthusiastic idealism in the first book, now transformed into blind obedience by his oath of service to the king. Writer-director Randall Wallace (Braveheart) rushes past this crucial backstory in search of an adventure that he hopes will sweep his movie along without any bother about themes or ideas. Because of his thoughtlessness--not to mention some performances that could charitably be called idiosyncratic--The Man in the Iron Mask limps painfully through Dumas' classic tale.
Heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio plays a dual role: young Louis XIV, a despot more interested in wars and women than in feeding Parisians, and his twin brother Phillippe, who was snatched away at birth and locked in a mask to prevent a feud over the throne. As the French king, DiCaprio's flat American vowels are somewhat of a distraction. But as the uncertain, unsocialized Phillippe, he has an appealing vulnerability. The masquerade ball, where the two change places, is tense and effective because of the actor's ability to differentiate the twin personae with a nervous eye twitch and a bobbing Adam's apple.
The actors lured to the musketeer roles are a diverse ensemble. Jeremy Irons has the most dignity as Aramis, the fiery priest who comes up with the plan to replace young Louis with his lost twin. Gabriel Byrne manages as D'Artagnan, the loyal captain of the king's guards, despite an occasional lapse into Irish brogue. Gerard Depardieu, France's greatest actor, is a hoot as the degenerate, Epicurean Porthos; the few words that can be understood through his thick accent are "nipple" and "piss." Whenever he blunders into a scene, the movie becomes hilariously absurd. John Malkovich, as Athos, appears to have forgotten everything about acting except for bizarre over-enunciation.
The musketeers' motto is "one for all and all for one," but Irons, Byrne, Depardieu, and especially Malkovich act as if they're enclosed in soundproof isolation booths. When they meet in a crypt to plan the royal switcheroo, the scene plays as if computer wizardry has been used to combine actors who were never in the same room. The editing emphasizes lifeless, single-figure shots, while the murky cinematography and obvious overdubs add a strange, artificial air. The sword fights at the film's climax begin stirringly, with the four figures ranged across the screen challenging all comers, but they quickly degenerate into dizzy close-ups, rendering the action tiring rather than exciting.
Results this lame and laughable from such a classic story make one wonder why Randall Wallace decided to adapt and direct The Man in the Iron Mask. There are some obvious similarities to Braveheart: the theme of resistance to unjust authority, an historical setting, the opportunity for battle sequences. But it appears that Wallace didn't think very long or hard about how to present this story or why it should speak to contemporary filmgoers. The inherent strengths of Dumas' story are canceled out by the director's lack of control over his material and his actors, who treat the movie as a two-hour audition for other films that exist only in their minds. The Man in the Iron Mask takes no cues from the musketeer legend, and it leaves nothing new for the musketeer legacy.
U.S. Marshals was destined to be a footnote to cinema history even before the film was shot; 10 years hence, someone will look up The Fugitive in a video guide and read the words "spawned an unsuccessful sequel, based on the Tommy Lee Jones character." Granted, Jones' part in The Fugitive--as Harrison Ford's dogged pursuer Lieutenant Gerard--was a highlight in a film full of highlights. But does he warrant a movie of his own?
Not really. Ancillary characters are in a story for a reason, to bring color and flash in short bursts. As exciting as Gerard and his staff of lawmen were in The Fugitive, there's something curiously ordinary about these folks as the subject of a feature. A team of federal cops catching crooks is the stuff of weekly TV shows, not motion-picture spectaculars.
The plot of U.S. Marshals is modified only slightly from its predecessor. Wesley Snipes plays a man incarcerated for a frame-up crime. During a "routine prison transfer"--is there any other kind in the movies?--a planeful of convicts goes down, and Snipes makes his escape. Jones is on the same plane, and he takes the con's flight personally. The marshals are called in, along with a special government operative (played by Robert Downey Jr., on loan from his own "routine prison transfer").
As in The Fugitive, there are close shaves and double-crosses and the occasional eye-popping stunt, but this time out, the load is unbalanced. Snipes' fugitive never develops into a recognizable person with real emotions. We never feel his panic. Instead, we're immersed in the hyperdrive rattle of Jones' dialogue, and the quick leaps of logic made by him and his fellow cops.
In fact, U.S. Marshals might've made a fine police procedural, if its plot twists weren't so obvious, and if it didn't carom off at impossible angles. Even the opening crash lacks the heat of realism--when the plane dives suddenly, no one hits the ceiling, and when the plane taxis down a makeshift highway landing strip, its wing strikes several telephone poles without sending the jet careening. Director Stuart Baird never convinces us that there's an original thinker or a vivid imagination behind the camera lens: A plane crash is a plane crash, and a chase is a chase.
This was never the case with The Fugitive, which had the audience so fully engaged in the twin obsessions of Ford and Jones that we didn't even mind the occasional awkward special effect. This point has been made before in these pages, but I'll beat a dead horse yet again: If the only reason to make a sequel is to repeat the bits that worked the first time and hope that the money falls the same way, then filmmakers shouldn't bother. It cheapens the memory of a good movie to make a fuzzy copy with the same materials. It's like a magician repeating a trick clumsily, so that we can see the coin going up his sleeve.
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