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Forget imprisonment, "The Man in the Iron Mask" deserves a death sentence.

By Stacey Richter

MARCH 23, 1998:  FRENCH-GUY ALEXANDRE Dumas was on to something when he wrote the novel that launched a half-dozen remakes. There have been at least six movie versions of The Man in the Iron Mask, and the one just released, directed by Randall Wallace and starring Leonardo DiCaprio in a double role, is only the first of the year. (The second has the same title, and will feature Timothy Bottoms).

You may be wondering: To what does The Man in the Iron Mask owe its great cinematic longevity? The story is a compelling one (though it varies quite a lot from picture to picture)--and what could be more photogenic than some guy with a metal salad bowl strapped to his face? We go to the movies to see freaky things like that. The story will probably always work on that level, but the version currently in theaters is simply abysmal. If you want to see some intriguing metal headgear, you're better off befriending a kid with braces.

The first thing that makes The Man in the Iron Mask so bad is exactly what you might think would make it good: DiCaprio. Will someone slap that guy for me? Why does he insist on making period movies? DiCaprio can be a decent actor when he plays it close to type. He was pretty good in Marvin's Room, where he played a bratty, 20th-century teenager. He can have a James Dean-ish intensity in the right role; but stick some hair extensions on him, put him in a gilded waistcoat and high-heeled boots, and he comes off like a sophomore in a high-school play. His acting in The Man in the Iron Mask is wooden, mannered, and exquisitely annoying.

He's especially lousy as King Louis XIV, the bad-Kirk aspect of the good-Kirk/bad-Kirk dual character he plays. As Philippe, Louis' abused and jailed younger brother, DiCaprio is somewhat better. His wan, girlish light shines brighter in the role of the victim.

To be fair, director Wallace deserves to share the blame for the badness that is The Man in the Iron Mask, and for the vileness of DiCaprio's performance. This guy cannot edit--he just can't do it. His idea of montage is the aesthetic equivalent of a Bambi-eyed figurine, with arms outstretched above a plaque that boasts: "I wuv you this much!" It, also, is exquisitely annoying, with plenty of lingering reaction shots from wayward kids, courtiers, and twinkly old ladies. Every emotional moment is visually milked, and milked again. Some ill-tempered audience members were heard whispering, "C'mon, speed it up," but alas, the film continued to creep at its petty pace.

It's long, too; around two and a half hours. At least an hour of this consists of shots of people walking in the verdant French countryside, or slow, emotive reaction shots. Between reaction shots, a plot emerges that involves four musketeers, two kings, and ladies in corsets that make their boobs bulge over the top (too numerous to keep track). King Louis is a self-absorbed terror who loves the ladies in corsets, parties, and little else. When he's told the people of Paris are rioting and starving, he declares the citizens of the most beautiful city in the world could not possibly be unhappy. He might as well have suggested they eat cake.

Louis is basically a smooth version of Veruca Salt, and of course no one really likes him. So it is with great relief that we learn he has a twin brother who's been kept imprisoned to prevent royal infighting. Philippe is all that Louis is not--kind, sensitive, blah blah blah. Some musketeers teach Philippe how to pinch a wine glass by the stem, which is how the royal boys do it. Then one is exchanged for the other.

All sorts of wild hijinks ensue, most of them so predictable that watching The Man in the Iron Mask for the first time is like watching it for a second. It's not even like you think you know what's coming. You know what's coming.

With all the lingering shots and predictable twists, there's plenty of time to imagine ways it could have been a better movie. My dream version would be called The Man in the Nourishing Clay Masque, and also involves a pair of princes. One is "into" skin care, but the other just washes with soap. The one who uses expensive products is ridiculed and called a fairy, but when the country needs a new king, the wash-and-go brother is rejected by the masses because of his bad skin. They can't love a leader without a fine complexion. The ridiculed brother takes his place as head-of-state. His skin is refulgent.

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